Joined-up thinking begins in your brain

Photo by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash

Effective leaders focus on action

How do you get leaders to lead? A strange question you might say. Yet, everyday reality shows us how often there is a lack of leadership. Projects remain unfinished, good intentions stay without result. The plans look great on paper, everything seems sorted. People experience little change or improvement. ‘No joined-up thinking’, the critics say, by way of excuse. How is this possible? This is possible, because very often, leaders are following instead of leading. This happens in the brain, just like getting distracted. Plans need action. The task of the leader is to select the right action to get started. Many times, however, leaders are taking no action at all.

Looking at others, delaying decisions

When political leaders, for example, look at the opinion polls first, before speaking out on an issue, they are following public opinion. During the last decade, following instead of guiding or informing public opinion, has even become a trademark of so-called populist politicians. They are making use of the fact that it is easier for the brain to be in the follower mode. It costs less energy. Another popular form of following instead of leading is delay. The brain prefers the status quo, again because it is easier, it already knows the situation, and does not need to adapt. Delaying a decision can be of course a good thing, too. Yet it can also be costly. Building costs for instance, often go up in time. The way the brain works makes it likely you feel it is safer to wait than to act.

Your brain scans for danger all the time

Our brains are well trained to look for danger. And, it might be very sensible in certain situations, to see what others are doing before you act. When crossing the road for example. When you look around to see what other people do, instead of acting, your brain might be in follower mode. Effective leaders are aware of others and what they do and think. And they ask questions like what can I do now?

Recognizing the chat brain

Part of your brain will always try to stop you from acting. It is important to recognize this chat brain. If you fail to recognize it when it is active, you run the risk that your brain is leading you. Leadership requires the skill to recognize the active chat brain. You are then able to evaluate your options from a higher viewpoint. Joined up thinking happens when you can see situations from this higher point. It is like you are standing on a mountain top. From there you can see the whole valley, and even the other tops.


It can be challenging to get to the top, the viewpoint. It takes many small steps, and lots of practice to get there. It can feel like a big step to speak out about a situation from a different angle, a different viewpoint. To take responsibility and act. It is easy to get drawn into discussions or debates and worry about opinions. It takes courage and maybe requires stepping outside your comfort zone. Your brain will adapt when you practice doing things differently. This works for everyone the same way, and this is what can motivate us to try things differently.

Small steps, big difference

The power of joined-up thinking is that it accelerates action. To practice joined-up thinking, it can help you to begin with a small step. It is important that you feel safe when you try to do something differently. You will feel less resistance. You are more likely to do it! The simpler, the better. Think of the easiest thing you can do, and then do it. Say you are stuck finishing a document. Stop with what you are doing and take a little one-minute break. Everyone can do this. The difficult part is recognizing that you are stuck. The short break gives your brain an impulse to recover. When the brain gets a break, it reintegrates new information. You will feel refreshed and are more likely to get your work done.

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