Brains in the White House

Americans are electing a brain to run their country.

Posted Sep 25, 2012

Americans are about to choose the brain that runs their country—and much of their lives—for the next four years. This is no small matter.

While newsbakers and political pundits obsess about the personalities and private lives of the surviving candidates, and voters agonize about their own self-centered issues, few of them actually understand the real choices they’re being offered.

Every head of state governs, in large part, based on the unique arrangement of the “mental furniture” that’s in his or her head. Let’s review some examples.

How Leaders Think

Dwight Eisenhower was a Blue Sky thinker. (I’ll explain the labels shortly.) Harry S Truman was a Red Earth. John F. Kennedy was a Red Sky. Lyndon Johnson was also a Red Earth. Richard Nixon was a Blue Sky. Jimmy Carter was a Blue Earth. Ronald Reagan was a Red Earth and a Red Sky. George Bush the elder was a Red Earth. So was George Junior. Bill Clinton was a Red Sky.

How do I know those things? Informed speculation, mostly. I’ve spent more than 20 years collecting information about the thinking patterns of all types of leaders—some of it by direct personal contact, some by personal observation, and some from a distance.

One thing I’ve concluded from those studies is that the distinctive “style” of thinking preferred by any leader—especially a president or prime minister—is just as important to his or her success as personality or temperament. Or even experience, for that matter.

In many cases, this “cognitive style” far outweighs personality in its impact on leadership. When Americans go through the national comedy show known as “picking a president” every four years, they’re choosing a brain, as well as all the other parts that come with it, whether they know it or not. And most of them don’t know it.

The great majority of voters adore or despise the candidates offered to them based on two selfish and irrational considerations: “Do I like him?” and “What is he promising to do for me?” Neither of these is very closely associated with the ability to run a country.

Why does this matter? Because more and more, leadership success in this complicated world depends on how one thinks as well as what one thinks.

Reading Brains—and Maybe Even Minds

Brain research has established that human beings use four primary thinking patterns as they perceive, memorize, learn, analyze, recall, problem-solve, plan, and express their ideas. We all use all four of these patterns, and most of us will gravitate toward one of them early in life, as our preferred “home base.” This is our “thinking style.”

Let’s consider those four key thinking patterns. Our everyday experience tells us that some people are very logical, analytical, systematic, and procedural in the way they think—and talk. Scientists tell us these people tend to rely on left-brain thinking, that is, the left sides of their brains tend to do most of the work. In the Mindex Thinking Style model, we characterize left-brain thinkers as “Blue” thinkers.

In contrast, people with a right-brain thinking preference—whom we can describe as “Red” thinkers—tend to rely on intuition, hunches, visceral judgments, and a kind of general radar for situations.

Each of these two contrasting patterns, Red and Blue, shows up in two variations. One is the concrete focus—immediate, geared to the here and now, and oriented to direct experience. The other focus is abstract, attuned to conceptual, imaginary, hypothetical, or future-oriented thinking.

This gives us four combinations: 1) left-brained and concrete, or “Blue Earth;” 2) right-brained and concrete, or “Red Earth;” 3) left-brained and abstract, or “Blue Sky;” and right-brained and abstract, or “Red Sky.”

If you like to think in pictures, imagine those four patterns as the panes of a four-pane window. The Red panes—Red Earth and Red Sky—are on the right side. The Blue panes—Blue Earth and Blue Sky—are on the left. Or, you can think of them as four software windows on your computer screen. Each one processes the same information in a different way.

That’s about all the science we’ll need to be able to read the way people—including presidents—do their thinking.

You can easily learn to spot these four unique thinking patterns in action, mostly by detecting certain telltale cues in the way people say things. How they phrase questions, how they frame answers; how they explain things; how they “report out” what they’re thinking about—these are all evident to the astute observer.

This secret knowledge is, in a way, a form of “mind reading.” You might not always know what someone is thinking about, but you can discover clues that tell you how they’re thinking about it. Does this mean you can read the minds of the political candidates? Maybe.

Let’s turn now to the candidates and their brains.

Brains on Parade

Barack Obama is, by my estimate, a Blue Earth—a left-brained and concrete orientation. Raised as a lawyer and a law scholar, he’s a serial problem solver. He takes on issues one at a time. We haven’t heard many references from him to the “big picture,” or the grand vision, which is popular with Sky-type thinkers.

His vice president, Joe Biden, presents as a Red Eartha right-brained and concrete thinker. Intuitive, down to earth, people-focused, he prefers action to deep thinking. He tends to frame issues and problems in practical, human terms.

Note that, if these perceptions are valid, both Obama and Biden are primarily concrete thinkers—the Earth orientation. Clearly, however, they both have access to the other patterns, and plenty of intelligence to go with them.

What of their competition? Mitt Romney is the opposing presidential candidate of choice. Although many observers might characterize him as a Blue Earth on the basis of his business career, I read him as primarily concrete and intuitive—a Red Earth. If you analyze his speeches and conversations, you might be struck by the absence of structure, logic, and linearity. Much of his financial success could be attributed to instinct, timing, and opportunity—and the assistance of experts—rather than an intensely analytical orientation.

Romney’s vice presidential partner, Paul Ryan, presents as distinctly Blue Earth in his processing preference. He won the role of the Republican Party’s “budget guru.” His speeches and conversations display a linear, analytical perspective, a love of cause-and-effect ideation, and a preference for logical argument.

Again, why might all of this matter? Because how they think is what you’ll get.

The Vision Thing?

If you’re hoping for a Reaganesque “new America” narrative, for example, don’t hold your breath. Whoever wins, it’ll be all about tools and tool belts.

Business philosopher Dov Seidman reminds us that when John Kennedy launched the Apollo program in 1962,

“He made a point of saying it would be done within the decade. It was such a powerful, inspiring, and big vision that it lived on, even though the president himself died before it was completed. It’s been a long time since any American politician launched the country on a journey of progress so inspiring that realizing it would extend beyond his term in office." And, in Kennedy’s case, his own lifetime.

If the winners are astute, self-aware, and perceptive enough, they can assemble a constellation of diversified thinkers who can act like a creative, extended meta-brain. If not, they’re likely to surround themselves with "yes" people who are clones of their own cognitive orientation.

Note that, in this assessment—if it’s accurate—the challengers present as mirror images of the incumbents. A Blue Earth president and a Red Earth vice president are fending off a Red Earth presidential contender and a Blue Earth contender for VP.

Either duo will tend to experience occasional "communication stress" due to their partial cognitive mismatching. But both pairs would probably benefit from the differences in their ways of thinking and engaging the world.

Obama might be well advised to give Biden more “face time” with the public, selling his policies and plans on the street in a down-to-earth way. Many media pundits like to stereotype Biden as a guy who speaks before he thinks, but in fact he has a lot of motivational energy for the “PR” role.

The Romney-Ryan team, if they win, might also have certain challenges in selling their story. Romney’s rather wooden persona is not well suited for the frontman role, and Ryan has a way of drowning people with facts and figures—much as Clinton’s Blue Sky vice president Al Gore was inclined to do. It might require a diligent and continuing effort to position Romney as an admirable commander-in-chief, with Ryan the intellectual architect behind the throne.

But wait—what about all those campaign promises? Don’t they tell us what the candidates would do if we gave them the job?

Not really—they’re mostly irrelevant. Very few of them will survive the first collision with the Congress and the lobbyists. Ultimately, what matters is the individual leader’s ability to deploy his or her particular kind of intelligence, and his or her cognitive orientation, in a way that can mobilize people and resources to get the big things done.

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Dr. Karl Albrecht is an executive management consultant, lecturer, and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He studies cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. His books Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: The Art and Science of Common Sense, and his Mindex Thinking Style Profile are used in business and education. The Mensa society presented him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence. Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.

About the Author

Karl Albrecht, Ph.D., is the author of more than 20 books, including Practical Intelligence: the Art & Science of Common Sense.

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