Leading from the right: understanding the divided brain

It’ll be ten years in October since Iain McGilchrist published The Master and His Emissary, his magisterial study of the division of the brain into left and right hemispheres and the impact of this division on Western civilisation. I began reading it in 2013 and have finished it in time for the tenth anniversary. Although McGilchrist writes well and lucidly, and although I devour books, I found this one a challenging read. I needed to take pauses from reading it to let its argument sink in. This isn’t just a reflection of my cognitive abilities. McGilchrist writes in ways that draw on both left- and right-hemisphere orientations. My struggle perhaps exemplifies his thesis that we have become inured to left-dominant ways of comprehending.

The outcome of 25 years’ polymathic scholarship, The Master and His Emissary cites 2,500 sources of neuroscience, provides a potted history of Western culture and philosophy from the Greeks to the present day, and displays refined critical appreciation of art, literature and music through the ages. Despite its challenging nature, it is widely cited in coaching and leadership circles, though often erroneously by those who take it to be a confirmation of pop psychology constructs of the left and right “brains” as having different functions: left for language, right for creativity, etc.

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Grounds for optimism

By Martin Vogel

Not everything about chaos is miserable. We may be living through an epoch-defining collapse of the socio-economic settlement we have known for four decades. A reckoning with free-market, shareholder value capitalism is long overdue and it is happening in more disruptive ways than was needed. Things may look disturbing and confusing. But, as David Brooks reminds, out of chaos comes hope:

“There have been many moments in our history when old ideas and old arrangements stopped working and people chopped them up. Those transition moments were bumpy, and it was easy to lose hope, but then people figured it out. Never underestimate the power of human ingenuity.”

He doesn’t mean the kind of blind-faith, glib, muddling-through, bulldog-spirit, groundless hope that keeps churning out the same answers to new problems. He’s not British. He’s talking about the application of imagination to the invention of new paradigms; meeting a new reality with new strategies.

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Nick Cave as coach

By Martin Vogel

Nick Cave has initiated an interesting project answering questions sent in from his fans. The questions are searching. The meditations Nick Cave composes in reply are works of artistry in their own right.

Last year, I wrote about the transcendent experience of the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concerts that followed the death of his son. The first of his epistles addresses this very theme. He describes how immersion in work and – in so doing – recovering a sense of wonder helped him find community and accept his grief:

“I kind of realised that work was the key to get back to my life, but I also realised that I was not alone in my grief and that many of you were, in one way or another, suffering your own sorrows, your own griefs. I felt this in our live performances. I felt very acutely that a sense of suffering was the connective tissue that held us all together.”

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Nick Cave: the transcendent power of music

By Martin Vogel

bad seeds

The most memorable and moving cultural event I experienced this year was seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform at the London Arena in September. In fact, I could say that in any year I see the band in concert. But this year was especially poignant.

Rock music has acquired roughly the position in our culture that jazz had when I was growing up: the breakthrough art form of an earlier generation, kept on life support by an ageing cohort of afficionados. Nick Cave has been in the business a long time and manages to observe the boundaries of the form while keeping it fresh and innovative. He surrounds himself with musicians of the highest calibre and inventiveness and produces music that spans the spectrum from hard-edged, dark, aggression to the most heart-wrenching and romantic ballads. Nick Cave himself is a consumate performer: he strides the stage with visceral energy and has an electric relationship with his audience.

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Camus and the wisdom of not knowing

By Martin Vogel

camus

“Democracy, said Camus, is the system that relies on the wisdom of people who know that they don’t know everything.” This observation, by Philip Collins in The Times (£) this morning sent me scuttling to consult Camus’ reflections in more depth.

Collins was giving a very measured response to the day of infamy which saw the murder of the Labour MP, Jo Cox. I hadn’t heard of Jo Cox before yesterday. But in our age of political disenchantment, it seems especially poignant that she appears to have been – as my friend, Simon, who broke the news to me, put it – a fabulous advert for everything we all want: an engaged, democratic, local, committed politician.

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Leading in complexity

By Martin Vogel

busy street

I’m not a great one for introducing theoretical models in my work with clients, however much my practice may be informed by theory. One that I frequently reference, though, is the leader’s framework for decision making devised by David Snowden and Mary Boone. This is the clearest and most usable articulation I know of what it means to lead in complex situations.

Snowden and Boone argue that leaders often come unstuck because they misconstrue the nature of the scenario they are dealing with. Typically, often without realising it, they are informed by an ideology of management that likens organisations to machines. So they fall in with expectations that most problems can be subject to linear solutions of command and control. Unfortunately, they are likely to be putting unreasonable pressure on themselves and, ultimately, setting themselves up for failure.

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Never to get lost is not to live

By Martin Vogel

Loch Lomond, Scotland

Book review: A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit writes non-fiction as if it were a work of poetry. A Field Guide to Getting Lost is part cultural history, part philosophy: a meditation on loss and being lost.

The meaning of these experiences – the familiar falling away and the unfamiliar appearing – is different today than it was in the past.  19th century travellers thought nothing of being off course for days at a time; for us, anxiety sets in within minutes of losing our way.  People had the skills to navigate the natural landscape and with this came a sense of optimism about their ability to find their way and survive.  Today,  even those who walk in the wilderness lack this familiarity with the landscape and rely on mobile phones to get them out of trouble.

For Rebecca Solnit, to live this way is to miss something of the very essence of life: “Never to get lost is not to live.”  Indeed, her theme is less the hazards of getting lost and more a hymn to losing oneself – the life of discovery that comes with living with uncertainty.

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