Real Leaders

How You Think – 5 Ways We May or May Not Be Wired for Achievement

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

We have learned more about how our brains work during the last five years than the last 5,000. For instance, we know the old “right-brain, left-brain” model is a gross over simplification of how our brains really processes information and decides to act. The brain functions like a network drawing on vital information that is gathered and evaluated throughout the three pounds of flesh that rests within our skull.

We are constantly building our new neural network. Depending on what we are constantly thinking about, what stresses us, what interests us, what is vital to us. We are constantly constructing new “cell towers” that powerfully shoot electrical energy across our thinking network so that we can act and react. Each of our neural network is as individual as our fingerprint. Yet new research from Harvard’s Stephen Kosslyn (“Top Brain, Bottom Brain: Surprising Insights into How You Think”) confirms that each of us use one of several Brain Achievement Maps.

A Brain Achievement Map, something I call BAM, is our habitual way of thinking. It’s how we individually select what’s important to us. What keeps our attention, how we learn what we need to learn, who we go to for help, when to act and when not to. Most importantly, it helps us set goals and achieve them. So, there are five common BAMs.

Not surprisingly, most men are wired up for two of them and most women for the other three. 

Here they are:

  1. Achiever: This BAM is found among most business leaders. It focuses your brain on goal achievement. You set the agenda and establish goals. WHen this is your BAM you are looking at trends, competitors and opportunities. You tell others WHAT is important to achieve.
  2. Motivator: This BAM causes people to answer the question – Why? It is your brain seeking purpose. It seeks moral achievement over money, fame or power. When this is your BAM it is difficult to act unless you’re clear on WHY you should.
  3. Collaborator: This BAM seeks interaction. Clarity is created through conversation. Different points of view are welcomed. Inclusion is vital. Decisions are the result of synthesis. The HOW is arrived at as a team. WHen this is your BAM social harmony is pure oxygen.
  4. Driver: This BAM thrives on action. It requires sustained high energy and focuses on immediate goals. Results are what matter. DO it now, no excuses. When this is your BAm you insist on accountability and relentless effort.
  5. Adapter: This BAM seeks practical, immediate improvement. It focuses on what’s working and what might work better. Improving is what matters. If this is your BAM, you thrive on “do, learn, do some more.”

It shouldn’t surprise you that male brains tend to be more Achiever and Driver brains. Females tend to be wired as Motivators, Collaborators and Adapters. What’s critical to understand is these gender differences don’t seem to be solely related to the differences in how boys and girls are raised.

The white matter in a female brain is significantly greater than in a male’s brain. White matter is the substance the brain uses to connect the dots from the far reaches of our neural networks. This means the female brain is engineered to be more collaborative, more diversity-embracing, more synthesizing, more empathetic, and quicker to improve. Even the neural connections between our prefrontal cortex where our values reside, and the rest of our brain capacity is greater in women than in men.

That’s why women generally have better impulse control and start far fewer biker gangs than men do. 

All this has leadership implications that are mission-critical for our future. There’s a stream of new data from organizations such as Sodexo, McKinsey and Company, Catalyst, and the Center for Talent Innovation that convincingly make the case that having many women in leadership positions have a direct impact on growth, profitability and innovation. Sodexo’s research reports that when one third of board members are women, profit margins are 42% better.

That’s a lot better. The key seems to be in having enough women in leaders. One token female does little to influence the achiever-driven brains of men. So organizations become half-brained. Resulting in half-assed business strategy, and poor executed with disengaged employees. That – in my experience – is the norm. Whole-brained organizations have enough women in senior business-driving positions to make a difference.

Having a female head of HR is not sufficient. Women also need to be driving business development, R&D, sales, marketing, operations and every other male-dominated domain of the enterprise. This is not to say that all women teams are the best.

The evidence is that mixed teams of men and women leaders produce better results than one gender teams of either. 

Perhaps now we’re learning why that’s true. Brain Balance. And now some coaching for aspiring women leaders. Please recognize that leading is not easy because your’e doing a lot more thinking than men do. I know this is no surprise. A recent review of 46,000 male and female brain scans revealed that women’s brains were significantly more active in nearly 90% of human brain function.

Sounds good, right? Well, not so fast. All this super-strong brain activity makes you more vulnerable to self-doubt, self-criticism, anxiety and chocolate cravings. There’s an area deep in your prefrontal cortex (anterior cingulate gyrus) that makes you hyper sensitive to personal perfectionism. Your “How am I doing?” meter is supersensitive. Your heightened social awareness makes you feel vulnerable to judgement.

And your strong sense of responsibility can drive you to be over-controlling. Perhaps the most difficult news is that your brain doesn’t produce even half of the serotonin that men enjoy. Serotonin is the brain chemical that gives you a feeling of continuous well-being and the sense that all is well.

That’s why it’s usually men who say, “Life is good.” Women on the other hand are much busier trying to make life good.

I’m convinced that women are the primary source of civilization. Some current proof of that is the amazing 98% repayment rate of microloans make to women in developing countries. Microloans are made without collateral but with the mutual social guarantees of 6 to 8 women borrowers.

Each woman pledges her hundred percent support to every other woman in the group to ensure all loan payments are made. So they are. Most microfinancce organizations don’t even loan money to men. That’s because they either spend the loan proceeds or the profit from their business on gambling or alcohol. Women, on the other hand invest their profits in building their businesses, their children’s education or community projects.

Yes, that’s awesome and all, but very stressful. My counsel to women is to realize that in many ways you have one foot on your accelerator and one foot on your break. That creates a lot of noise and smoke, but not speedy progress. Your accelerator is your bright brain that is perfectly designed to thrive in our complex 21st century world. Your break is that inner voice that is constantly second-guessing you.

The bottom line is don’t expect men to behave much differently than they do they are simply not equipped to. And don’t you hang back. Don’t you wait. 

Our future needs a leadership revolution led by men and women working together to create a future we want our children to grow up in.


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