On Having the Courage to Break out of Prison

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A human being is part of the whole called by us “the universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening the circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty – Albert Einstein

Renowned psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s 2009 book, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and The Making of The Western World (watch the RSA animation here) takes its title from a parable[1] that tells the story of  a wise man who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, he nurtured and carefully trained emissaries, so they could be trusted to tend to the more distant parts of his domain.

Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious vizier, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s temperance and forbearance as weakness, not wisdom – the emissary became contemptuous of his master.

And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins.

McGilchrist weaves this cautionary tale to demonstrate that while the cerebral hemispheres of the brain should cooperate with one another, they have been in conflict for some time, with our current civilisation in the hands of the emissary who, although gifted in many ways, functions as “an ambitious regional bureaucrat with his own interests at heart.”

In my experience, in business, we have a tendency to talk about the left and right hemispheres of the brain in very loose, imprecise and neuro-scientifically incorrect language.  The left is about logic, process and structure, the right is about emotion and people for example. He’s very left brained. We need some more right brained thinking here.

The work of McGilchrist, Iain Marshall, Danah Zohar, Christopher Wray and others, supports the concept that transformative intelligence arises as a result of the integration of both the left and the right hemisphere. Transformative intelligence (or spiritual intelligence) acts as a force that allows us to break old paradigms and to invent new ones, to reframe problems and situations, to dissolve old patterns and to be open to finding new ones. It also represents our access to and need for deep meaning, fundamental values and a sense of purpose, and the extent to which these influence our decisions and actions. It has the force to address lower motivations and to shift us towards higher motivations.

In other words, transformative intelligence requires the cooperation of both the left and the right hemisphere. It is the intelligence required to self-actualise in Maslow’s terms and the intelligence required to free ourselves from optical delusion of consciousness Einstein believed imprisons us.

Recent scientific research, under the title “embodied cognition” casts the role of the brain as merely the conductor of a mind-body orchestra, with intelligence being an entire bodily process involving all 5 senses, our needs, pre-set modes of intelligence called emotions as well as skills and experience. In this world view, IQ is just a very small part of what constitutes intelligence.

Further, whilst the concept of EQ argues that considering conventional intelligence alone, IQ, is too narrow, the concept of EQ is also limiting: we need a much broader range of mental process to get on in the real world – a whole orchestra of skills and attitudes, from self-discipline, to grit, to resilience with intuition being at least as important as mental reasoning in decision making.

Our intelligence is not fixed – it is expandable. We expand our intelligence by strengthening our capacity to learn, by seeking out new experiences and by re-framing failure. Mindfulness and meditative practices increase our intelligence because, Guy Claxton says they “increase the quality of the information that arrives at the central core of neural decision making from both internal and external sources” and “improves the communication between as well as within the body’s sub-systems. It increases the efficiency and comprehensiveness with which these sources are interwoven”.

There’s a lot going on, and as the neuroscience evolves, people in the field of helping people in positions of leadership must be cognisant of developments in the science of intelligence – making judgments and making decisions is intelligence applied.

Leaders in large organisations at senior executive and board level deal with systemic and strategic issues in precarious environments. They are operating at the most cognitively demanding level in their organisations, where ironically being comfortable with not-knowing is arguably the most important skill they need to master.  In McGilchrist’s parable they have become the “emissary” but they used to be human beings and want to be the “master” helping the people within their domain flourish.  These are the people who have the potential to have the greatest impact on our society – both good and bad.  They need the support of talented people who can shed light on how to “do leadership” in pressure so intense, that one might be tempted to disconnect from what called them to lead in the first place – their purpose and that which gives their work meaning.

Leaders are at their most effective when their deeply held values, concerns and aspirations resonate with those of the people they wish to lead. They are at their most effective when they have the courage to break out of the prison that deludes them into the thinking they are separate from the rest, and separate from all but a few persons nearest to them. No-one breaks out of prison alone, it takes cooperation.

Double Flourish Grey


[1] McGilchrist attrbutes this to Nietzsche in the book, however, experts on Nietzsche believe this parable is a synthesis of works by Plato, Nietzsche and others.

Also published on Medium.

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