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The High Road in Leadership Thinking
The High Road in Leadership Thinking

It’s all in your thinking:
how the mind influences your leadership style

Have you ever wondered how the world’s most successful leaders make effective decisions and influence others? The key is in the way they think and focus their attention – an approach researchers call the Wise Advocate.

The Wise Advocate is your inner voice that helps you reflect on yourself and your actions while keeping in mind what other people are thinking and doing.

Most people likely focus their attention in two ways when making difficult decisions:

Low Road

Low road thinking involves satisfying needs, desire, immediate value and quick problem solving – which describes a more reactive leader.

Uses the Reactive Self-Referencing Centre of the brain.

Typical questions that activate low road thinking:

  • What’s in it for me,
  • What’s in it for them?
  • What do I want, and what do they want?
  • Is it valuable or relevant?

High Road

High Road thinking that reflects on long term goals and how to achieve a shared vision – which describes a more creative leader.

Uses the Deliberative Self-Referencing Centre of the brain.

Typical questions that activate High Road thinking:

  • What am I thinking?
  • What will I do next?
  • What are my medium and long-term goals?
  • What are others thinking, and what will they do?

A creative leader plays to win; a reactive leader plays not to lose

Most leadership behaviours can be described as reactive or creative. The amount of creative leadership capacity a leader demonstrates depends on several factors;

  • The developmental stage of the leader,
  • The mental operating system the leader is using, and
  • The leader’s perception of the world

When you try to lead change as a reactive leader, you perceive problems as threats and fear of failure which drives you towards quick problem solving. In contrast, a creative leader sees problems as opportunities and problem solves through aligning action with purpose and vision. This enables the creative leader to lead in ways that create a more agile, innovative, and high performing space.

Watch what happens when Kevin takes the low road...

Kevin has been working 15 hours a day for as long as he has been in this job. He often falls asleep answering emails in bed. He is prepping for a meeting on Monday morning that is critical to the results his team needs to deliver. One of his team members walks in to Kevin’s office to show him the slide deck she has been preparing for the meeting. Kevin starts flipping through and stops and points. “What are you putting this diagram here for? I thought we discussed this! Do you want us to lose all credibility? This meeting is important Stephanie.”
Stephanie, mumbles “Sorry, I misunderstood.”
Kevin says with a heavy sigh. “I’ll fix it and take it from here.”

Understanding your leadership strengths and evolving your thinking will enable you to be a more effective leader

Developing new ways to think about leadership challenges is important for strategic development because it challenges your brain to focus on High Road thinking. Unless there is a conscious effort to activate High Road thinking, your brain will automatically lean towards a reactive, Low Road responses. The Low Road is controlled by the habit center of the brain, therefore directing behavior in automatic ways, inhibiting adaptability, creativity and innovative thinking.

High road thinking is activated by focusing on vision and a sense of shared purpose. By focusing on an inspiring vision you can switch tracks onto the high road.

Now, let's see Kevin take the high road...

Kevin has been working hard at his job, and he has a big meeting coming up that is critical to the results his team needs to deliver. Kevin takes the time to think about the meeting and what outcomes he wants. He also knows that he wants to support his team to do their best work so that they can achieve the win in the meeting together. He stays up late prepping for his meeting and comes in to the office a bit tired the next day. One of his team member’s Stephanie, comes in to his office to go through the slide deck she prepared for the meeting. Kevin flips through it and notices that the diagrams are out of order and some of the points they discussed are missing.
Kevin feels some frustration rising, but he stops and looks through the rest of the slides while he takes a minute to collect himself. In his mind he tells himself to re-focus on the win for his team.
Kevin asks. “Stephanie, when you think about this meeting what do you think is most important for us to achieve?”
Stephanie considers the question. “I think we need to make sure we have alignment and agreement with our partners.”
Kevin agrees. “So based on that Stephanie, what do you think their main concerns will be?”
Stephanie says, “They will want to be clear on what we are asking of them.”
“I agree.” says Kevin. “So based on that, pretend you are our partners and look through this slide deck and tell me what you notice.”
Stephanie looks through the slides carefully and responds, “Well actually, I think I could change the order a bit. I think they will need to see these statistics first. Also I noticed we didn’t mention the great work our one partner did and I think it will help to include that.”
“Great insights Stephanie.” says Kevin.
“I’ll make those changes right away Kevin.” Stephanie replies. “Thanks for the input. This is going to be great.”
Kevin feels good about his ability to keep his focus on the vision and support Stephanie in thinking in a more strategic way.

When leaders focus their attention on High Road thinking, they will strengthen their associated brain circuits, leading to long term goal directed responses. The key is to limit habitual behaviors and create the capacity for strategic thinking.

Over time, continued practice will help you develop the strengths to become more of a creative leader. The kind of leader who can make effective decisions and influence change.

Read More About the Neuroscience of Strategic Leadership


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