by Gael O’Brien

In the 1990s, I took a weeklong “whole-brain speed reading course” and increased my reading rate from about 330 words per minute to over 3000. It was the first time “whole brain” went on my radar.

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Tomorrow’s leaders need to develop”the practices and ways of mindful listening, seeing and connecting that allow our brains to rewire.”

Through exercises to develop “soft eye” and strengthen my peripheral vision, reading calisthenics, listening to baroque music (stimulating alpha brain waves and relaxation), meditation and learning mind mapping (which integrates left and right brain thinking to see the whole picture) I experienced what was called deepened awareness and consciousness. The result was my reading at break neck speed with high retention. However, I could only sustain the reading rate when I practiced and did the exercises.

What does this have to do with ethical behavior? This isn’t about creating a world of speed readers. But in understanding the brain’s potential, with appropriate cultivation, consider the benefits, for example, of identifying unintended consequences at the outset if decision makers could deepen their awareness to see “the whole of it” rather than just their agenda.

In the course of researching values, purpose and leadership effectiveness, I kept encountering the term “spiritual intelligence”—abbreviated as SI or SQ. It is secular (not connected to religion). One of our multiple intelligences, SQ is identified as integrating the other intelligences (which include intellectual quotient (IQ), emotional intelligence (EQ) etc.) to enable a whole-brain approach. Leaders who have developed their SQ transform organizations. Physicist and philosopher Danah Zohar is among the many authorities on SQ published in the last 15 or so years.

Besides seeing the whole of it, the definitions of SQ include accessing wisdom, awe, beauty, deeper meaning, higher purpose, goodness, truth, and exercising intuition, compassion and other attributes. While it is a long list that gets at the heart of human potential, it can seem too diffuse to get on leaders’ radar to cultivate. In contrast, psychologist Daniel Goleman brought the five components of EQ to the foreground in his 1998 Harvard Business Review article “What Makes a Leader”.

Neuroscientists are still studying the brain’s plasticity enabling us to learn more about SQ in addition to other ways the brain rewires. However, in the meantime, as SQ plays such a critical role in leaders’ capacity to make good decisions and minimize ethical lapses, I offer a working definition of SQ, culled from its descriptions, to address that:

Spiritual intelligence is the ability to access deeper meaning and multiple ways of knowing to see and solve or resolve the right problems.

Its attributes include: being fully present, operating out of values/purpose, asking the question behind the question, inviting diverse and conflicting views, integrating left and right brain responses into a whole brain approach and moving from “I” to “We.”

The reality is we are currently inundated with pieces of SQ illustrating this definition, but taken separately, or only for utilitarian purposes and not seen holistically, we only get partial impact:

Meditation and mindfulness: From the World Economic Forum to Aetna to Silicon Valley companies to entrepreneurs  to individual practices of CEOs to Scientific American’s November 2014 cover story (“The Neuroscience of Meditation), the benefits of meditation to change the brain, reduce stress and increase focus and clarity are praised. However, if embraced as a tool to increase productivity, the byproduct overcomes the bigger opportunity.

Values and purpose, if they are deeply held and embedded in culture, become drivers for engagement and success as Fast Company’s November 2014 cover story (“Find Your Mission”) demonstrates — purpose at one’s core is a competitive advantage.

Asking the question behind the question uses IQ and EQ to tune into what question will unlock a stalemate, enable someone to see or express the crux of a problem or be able to share what is really on his or her mind.

Inviting diverse/conflicting views to the table is more than smart strategy or a way to foster innovation or encourage hearing about ethical red flags before they implode; along with respect and shared purpose, it enables collaboration that can fuel corporate sustainability  efforts as well change a work culture. “We are more cooperative and less selfish than most people believe. Organizations should help us embrace our collaborative sentiments.” 

Whole brain thinking has been advanced for decades, supported by science that goes beyond just looking at the left and right hemispheres of the brain.  As my experience with speed reading suggested, a number of factors created a dynamic that when I practiced and cultivated them gave me an accelerated capacity.

Moving from I to We eliminates the objectification that happens in conflict when the enemy is “the other.” When everyone is seen as a stakeholder, interconnectedness transforms what is possible to accomplish.

Each of these six elements builds on each other. Meditation and mindfulness are the essence of self-care – taking time to pause, reflect, breathe, de-stress and gain perspective that shifts our awareness and enables a sense of personal wholeness. Identifying and living out of a deeper purpose grounds a leader and organization; it inspires, motivates and renews. Curiosity, deep listening skills and empathy enable reading a situation to go deeper to ask the question that gets at the heart of it. An ego-in-check enables opening an issue to its most messy to work through disagreement, respecting the dignity of each participant to collaborate on creating a win-win, not win-lose. Seeing the whole of something breaks down silos and attracts collaborators that lead to “We.”

Luckily leadership is a work in progress. I believe these elements are at the core of what 21st century leadership requires. To get us there, we’ll need to be open to, and develop, the practices and ways of mindful listening, seeing and connecting that allow our brains to rewire.

Gael O'Brien_2012_CropGael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.