Left Brain Leadership


I have spent a large part of my career leading / managing teams.  I have had my moments of success and my moments of failure as a leader.  I look back at some of the things I have done in the name of leadership and cringe at my crassness and stupidity.  In a recent blog on persistent problems I noted that to be successful in IT we needed to be able to solve both engineering and psychological problems.  In the subsequent conversation on the blog with J. M. Auron I came back to the realisation that being able to address both left brain and right brain perspectives was a critical leadership capability.

I have long struggled with the right brain aspects of leadership.  Not only am I left brain but I am also strongly introverted so “people skills” didn’t come naturally to me and I needed to learn new skills and develop these over time.   I reckon this is a common issue for many leaders who come from a technical background (in my case a combination of accounting and IT) and who are predominantly “left brain.”  It got me thinking about some of the critical insights that have supported me to (at least partially) address these issues and become more balanced in my interactions and I thought I would share them here with you.

Leader as Designer.  In the Fifth Discipline Peter Senge makes the case for the leader as designer.  He uses the example of a cruise ship and makes the case that the designer of the boat is more important to the success of the cruise than the more traditional roles of Captain or Cruise Director.  Get the design of the boat right and the chances of success are greatly improved, get it wrong however and it will be difficult to have a successful cruise.

I love the idea of leader as designer.  I immediately related to the idea of designing the organisation as a key role of the leader.  It plays directly into my analytical strengths.  I could think deeply about what makes an effective organisational design for my team and if I can get that design right then I was hopeful that perhaps the day to day management of a team could largely take care of itself.  I could do that and actually enjoy it.  Of course it posed a bit of a dilemma.  What is “great design” for an IT team?

The Service Profit Chain.  My first hint of what is great design came from Heskett et al and their landmark “Putting the Service Profit Chain to Work“.  In this article Heskett et al set out a series of propositions that underpin performance in service organisations.  Their insights were directly relevant to me as IT is a service industry.  So, with the help of my existing lead team, I took their ideas, combined them with the Kaplan and Norton’s Balanced Scorecard and created the IT Value Chain.  I have written a lot about the IT Value Chain and If you are interested in finding out more then download this white paper, however the key take out is that you need to design work and your organisation in a way that makes it easy for your team to succeed.  Do that and your team will be highly engaged and provide a great customer experience.  

The insights of the service profit chain brought me closer to understanding how to design a great work environment but did not actually provide the full answer.   So the search continued but this time focusing on how to design for engagement.

Over a period of time several things occurred and came together.    Firstly I got involved in the Life Game Project, a community organisation I co-founded that sought to teach life skills to underprivileged kids through online games.  For me this built on Randy Pausch’s last lecture notion of head fake learning – the importance of what you learn while you are doing something else.  About this time I discovered Kenneth Thomas’s Intrinsic Motivation At Work  which sets out the psychological research behind motivation as it is applied to the workplace.  The key for me in all of this came down to this one insight.  A key part of the leaders job is to define and hand off work and then get out of the way and let the team do their job while being available to support as required.   

For me the final piece of the puzzle came from some Booz and Co research called The Dominant Genes.  This research looked at what separated the best strategy execution organisations from the rest.  They identified four key factors which I summarise as follows:

  • Ensure people know what they are responsible for and who is responsible for what
  • Ensure they have the information and tools required to be successful
  • Ensure alignment both within the job and between the job and the organisations goals.
  • Implement a supportive structure, that is a structure that supports the team to be successful.

Over time these insights formed in my brain in a way that gave me a view of what my role as an IT Leader was:

  1. Recognise that our objective is to deliver value from the use of information and technology
  2. Understand that we will deliver value when we effectively manage the dynamics of the IT Value Chain
  3. Engagement is the key to the IT Value Chain.  This includes engagement of the IT team and engagement with and of your customers so that they become advocates for your services.
  4. The main objective of the leader then is to design an engaging work environment that is, an environment that makes it easy for the team to succeed.
  5. An engaging work environment requires a combination of effective work design (re the Booz study) and effective work management (re Intrinsic motivation at work).
  6. And finally, my job as a leader is to effectively design work, hand off that work to the team and then support them as they deliver that work to the broader organisation.

I could do these things and I could do them through my dominant left brain thinking and if done well I could do them in a way that met the right brain or “soft skill” needs of my team.

Let me finish with one caveat.  This thinking process has worked well for me and it has been the underpinnings for much of my growth as a leader.  I do not hold myself up as a great role model of leadership, there are many better leaders out there than me.  That said, I have written this as I reckon I am not unique in the world and I believe there are many leaders out there who are similar to me and maybe, just maybe this will be helpful to a few of you.

Would love to hear your thoughts.


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