The Best Leaders Think: What About Me, What About You?
Those who fail in leadership positions, despite having been outstanding as individual performers, often don’t consider these two mental stances as critical to the job.
A candidate for CEO told me he felt ready to take over an organization—his first post at the top—after he had gone through a leadership workshop. At the end, the trainer told him that he was an outstanding leader—potentially.
Of course he had never led a company before, and so had no track record. But he exuded self-confidence. Is that enough?
That CEO candidate came to mind recently when I heard a new rap song that has two refrains:
What about me?
What will make me happy? What do I want to do? Where am I going?
These are, of course, the kinds of thoughts that guide us through our days. Research at Harvard finds that we spend an average of half our time lost in thoughts about ourselves, how our relationships are going, and the like—and that this escalates to around 90 percent while we commute, at work, and while we are looking at a video screen (as you are probably doing right now).
The brain circuitry for these me-thoughts lies in the mid section of the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive center, just behind the forehead. Sometimes called the “mind-wandering circuit,” this area seems to spring into action as the brain’s default mode. While we are actively focusing on something— say a project at work—this default mode stays quiet. But the minute we lose our focus, it turns on, steering our thoughts away from work and back to our me-concerns.
That’s why staying focused takes active effort. The good news: it can be enhanced with systematic training. And in today’s hyper-distracted life, the ability to get focused at will and stay that way has greater and greater value.
The brain capacity to focus uses prefrontal circuits that also help us manage our feelings and stir positive attitudes and goals—and have the grit to achieve them.
That “about you” requires using different circuitry in the brain. Those promoted to leadership at any level, from team to CEO, need to be adept in social awareness and relationship management—all functions of the brain’s social circuitry.
These two mental stances—about me, about you—each represent the activity of very different parts of our brain’s wiring, and full emotional intelligence requires we use both. The first two parts of emotional intelligence—self-awareness and self-management—are “about me.” A high-performing leader first must lead herself.
But then there are the needs of everyone else, and of the whole organization. That “about you” requires using different circuitry in the brain. Those promoted to leadership at any level, from team to CEO, need to be adept in social awareness and relationship management—all functions of the brain’s social circuitry.
That’s what the second refrain from that rap song—What about you?—refers to. In other words, I’m tuning into what you feel, think, and need. That’s what leadership requires—and what I failed to hear from this would-be CEO. He said nothing of his vision for the organization, his ideas for fresh strategies, nor how it was doing in its competitive ecosystem and how he might help it do better. There was no “about you” in his thinking.
Our “about you” circuits are to be found in the social brain. They come in distinct flavors: one circuit guides our understanding of the other person’s thoughts; other circuits tune into their feelings. And still another set of circuits determine whether we want to help that person.
And those who fail in a leadership position, despite having been outstanding as individual performers, very often have a deficit here. Highly effective leaders have all three going.