Your Brain is Amazing

So is mine, actually, if I can say so without seeming arrogant.  And this is partly because it can do two things almost at once.

I’m reading the best book ever (well, my latest ‘best book ever’ I suppose): it’s called ‘The Master and His Emissary’ by Iain McGilchrist.  Subtitle: ‘The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’ – so, an ambitious tome.  But ambition is great if you can back it up – and boy, can McGilchrist back it up!  This is a book which connects neuroscience with philosophy with physics with literature with music with emotional intelligence with evolution with… you get the picture.

For those of us who are right-handed, the basic brain stuff goes like this (lefties: you probably – but not definitely – need to reverse left and right in the paragraphs below).

The right hemisphere of your brain is open to the world: it attends to everything that’s going on.  In a way it’s like a vast satellite dish, receiving signals all the time.  And it picks things up whole, connected, in context with one another.  (You can see this if you get wired up to a monitor which picks up the electrical and chemical activity in your brain.)

What does it do with all that overwhelming data?  It sends it to be ‘processed’ in the left brain: there it gets broken down and focussed and manipulated to make it useful to us.  the left brain will narrow down on what it thinks we need to know, and package it up in a more or less logical way for us – in words for example (for most of us the left brain is most involved in language).

All that happens in a nanosecond; and then the packaged information is whizzed back to the right brain to feed in alongside all the new data it’s picking up.  Stuff ‘reverberates’ from one side of our brain to the other all the time.

I find all this stuff mind-blowing – ironically.  But one of the many great things about it is – it totally fits with Jung’s notion of paired, complementary mental functions (as picked up in MBTI and other Jungian Type instruments).  Right brain – intuition (big picture, context, vision, connection).  Left brain – sensing (data, focus, analysis).  And it fits with Daniel Kahnemann’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ (fast – right brain; slow – left brain).

The question is – how do we get ourselves to attend to both sides of the brain appropriately?  If you’re a leader, this is especially important, of course – but we all need to do it.

You could start by reading the book…


Leading in schools and business

Actually, this entry is mainly just a link to an article on the Guardian website where I get a mention as a leadership coach.  Read all about it here.

Matt’s right, in that leaders in all sectors are isolated: it comes with the territory.  And one way of dealing with that is to have someone with some skills ‘offline’ to reflect with.  One reason coaching works is because of the professional boundary: when I’m meeting with a client, my only agenda is his or her development: it’s not what s/he thinks of me, or if s/he’s happy.

A Change in the Weather

Almost overnight, everyone else has turned brown.  Suddenly there are shorts and tee-shirts, sunglasses.  Everyone moves more slowly.  It feels like a holiday.  Outside my window in the centre of Bristol, you can hear desultory chat, the chink of glasses, music turned up, the slap of sandals walking by.

A change in the system (in this case, the weather system) produces a change in behavior, a change in priorities, a change in feelings.

I know there are some hardy souls who just start wearing shorts at the beginning of April even if it’s still snowing (no, there ARE – I saw one guy earlier in the year), but they are the exception.  It is hard to do one thing when the system is telling you to do something else.

I’m coming to realize that as a coach, I’m never coaching an individual – I’m always coaching the system.  It’s extremely hard for a naturally receptive person to become assertive at the best of times.  But when his boss is aggressive and full of initiatives of his own, it’s almost impossible.  Somehow the boss has to change to make the space for the other guy to assert himself.  It’s all very well for a CEO to have a compelling  vision and pull together a team to implement it – but if the Board gets too anxious too quickly about the bottom line, she may not be given the chance to get there.

You have to change the system.  And if you want one of your direct reports to develop, you have to get out of the way.  And to do that you may have to change even more than the person who’d being coached.  Or you may have to see how the system can be changed at an even more fundamental level.

Sometimes we need to change the weather.

Ten Top Tips About Time

Ten things we all know about time, but often don’t act on!  And I include myself…
  1. Time is a limited resource, like money.  You need to budget.
  2. The way you spend your time now indicates the priorities you actually have now.
  3. If you don’t know what your priorities are, you can’t budget your time.
  4. A diary is really easy to plan 18 months in advance.
  5. A diary is impossible to plan a day in advance.
  6. Once something important is in the diary, it can be defended.  If it never gets there, it can’t.
  7. You have a choice about whether to spend time on what energises and fulfils you, or on other stuff.
  8. You haven’t put an event in your diary if you haven’t put the preparation (and travel) in as well.
  9. A completely full diary is a failure to plan for immediate needs.
  10. Your failure to plan should not be someone else’s crisis.


Bob Dylan’s ‘Tempest’

It’s been six weeks since Bob’s new album came out: long enough to get the hang of it, even for the most picky Dylanophile.

So – as usual, some great songs.  An average Dylan song is better than most songwriters ever manage, and there are a few really good Dylan songs here: ‘Scarlet Town‘ is the best by a mile.  ‘In Scarlet Town where I was born, there’s ivy leaf and silver thorn; the streets have names that you can’t pronounce…’ is a great opening to his retelling of the old American standard ‘Barbara Allen’, and takes us into the land of mythical resonance that gave birth to Dylan the songwriter.

I could go on (and will, if you get me talking).  But one of the (many) things I love about Bob is the way he makes old things new.  He re-imagines the oldest folk traditions and makes them into something sparkling and fresh.  He finds life where you thought there wasn’t any. It’s one of the things that infuriates the casual listener who goes to one of his concerts – why can’t he do ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ so that I can recognise it?  But what would be the point?  Do it different: maybe then it will mean something different.  Maybe it’ll work better. Maybe it’ll be worse.  But we won’t know unless we experiment.

So that’s the point of this blog – learn from doing things differently.  Re-imagine.  Keep it fresh.

First Manage Yourself

I recently had a really interesting meeting with a hugely talented woman who works for herself.  She does the most wonderful work.  But she’s struggling to stay motivated and to hit targets, to manage her clients and develop her business.

In our discussion, I asked if she needed a business mentor or a coach.  She was clear: this is about managing herself.  She knows the business inside out; she knows better than almost anyone how to do what she does.  But she needs to manage herself better.

Often we assume that management is about how we get what we need out of other people.  It’s not.  It’s always about how we manage ourselves.  And no-one else can do that.

In the end, the only resource I have to offer the world, or my family, or my business, or my friends is myself.  Am I learning to develop and use that resource?

Ignorance is Bliss

So I’m sitting doing Maths revision with my son, and he’s struggling with SIN and COS and areas of triangles.  It all comes over me in waves – the way I just scraped my GCE Maths all those years ago, how I felt like I was drowning in a sea of ignorance, slowly sinking beneath the waves, never to be seen again…

But then I remembered how I felt when he taught me to swim.  Years ago, he was having lessons, and picking it up really well.  I had never been much of a swimmer, and I thought – why not?  If he can do it, so can I.  Let him teach me – it’ll be good for both of us.  And it was.  He grew in confidence, and I learned better from him than I had from the guy who’d chucked me in the deep end and shouted at me when I was six years old.

The same was true just now – I shared my ignorance with him, and we worked on things together.  I gave up – and he was in the position of having to ‘rescue’ me.  The power shifted – and he’s working away now on his own while I come to write this.

It’s not enough to know the answer and be confident.  Coaching is about really, truly not knowing, and trusting the client and the dynamic of the relationship to come up with the answer.  For coaches, it’s all too tempting to feel we should ‘know the answer'; for buyers of coaching, it’s all too tempting to go for a coach who has wide experience in the business that the client is involved with.  But ignorance really is bliss in coaching – scary, challenging, sometimes threatening… but the only place to start if you actually want to help someone learn something.