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Kevin J. Fleming, Ph.D. Headshot

The WikiLeak "Solution": 3 Improvements to the Brain Leak in the U.S. Response

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When news hit recently about the unnerving release of nearly 250,000 sensitive and top secret cables via the whistle blower website, WikiLeaks, the White House acted fast to do damage control, and understandably so. Representatives from 186 countries were contacted by the administration in attempts to manage the unintended consequences of this inevitably perceived trust issue -- a natural consequence when our internal dialogue about how we really feel about someone gets spilled. Responding to the slew of insults released in these documents about world leaders, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded positively and assertively, assuring America that by no means does this event affect how the U.S. conducts foreign policy.

Hmm. Really?

Though certainly I understand the protocol responses officials must make, I am curious what the brains of foreign leaders think about that potentially naïve statement. Though we can't interview solely the brain without getting the conscious person involved, we do have techniques in neuroscience to extrapolate a bit on that notion, and to see just what happens to the brain when trust is violated. For instance, what would a qEEG or fMRI scan show about the brain of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi in a pre and post fashion after being now coined as "feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader"? Or when asked to comment through a voice stress analyzer about what it felt like to be called "risk aversive and rarely creative" would the German leader Angela Merkel minimize and rationalize its effect? Chances are, when we read these imaginative scenarios, they do bring us closer to the realization that there may be a disconnect between how we assess "trust truth" linguistically and whether there is a need for a whole 'nother level of thinking and assessment methodologies for inherently complex, geopolitical issues.

That is, I do believe there is an irrational wish we all carry in our hearts and brains that what people say about us matches what is the truth and many of the world's personal and corporate development strategies all rest on this assumption in many ways. Sure, we have paper and pencil tests to get at personality, team, and culture factors, but these tests rarely go to a level underneath our conscious rationalizing-addictive brain. Most people are primed to be innovative at work yet the means by which they are asked to do so get quietly undone by the way cultures seek it and the system it has to be integrated in to. And even if we tolerate the fact that there is a known disconnect between words and what is the bubble above our head, I am convinced in coaching and consulting work that many cognitive biases affect who and when we give the "get out of jail free" card to (i.e., leading to accountability issues) and who we verbally call out in a righteous way (i.e., leading to emotionally misguided efforts to be "right"). While the WikiLeak crisis brings issues of increased security to most of the internet and chat room dialogue around what is needed to solve this, I seem to be taking the mental road less traveled here -- that that response is furthering the same cognitive illusions that got us in this debacle in the first place as it denies again the rational/irrational battles of the brain.

While there may be readers at this point of this article that are about to say preemptively that I am about to advocate this panacea of having politicians speak transparently the bubbles above their head while skipping in gardens together, I actually am saying something different. That is, there will always be this split but acknowledging the split upfront and not something that gets equated to a certain type of high risk person or procedure is likely the more effective route to go. Why? For then your policies and procedures will be adjusted to test and assess on this meta-level of understanding upfront without irrational judgment, versus describing the water to people while they drown on the backside and calling that success. I argue this leak is merely an extreme version of a fundamental disconnect in us all that needs ontological tightening on the front end of our culture building, leadership thinking, dialogue, and content development for training world leaders. One of my friends and colleagues, John Mroz, is President and CEO of the EastWest Institute which, in their words, is "an international, non-partisan, not-for-profit policy organization focused on confronting critical challenges that endanger peace." Their critical work in what we would understand as the facilitation of solutions around geopolitical impasses and conflicts is world class. What makes them extraordinary is that they have seen the value of incorporating the thinking of a neuroscience trained professional in how the brain understands notions of trust, a huge assumption in the work they do every day. Asking questions about whether our current strategies in dialogue actually match the reality of the brain is primary. Such as, investigating more what the brain does in its own internal negotiations while externally negotiating -- that is, to neurologically "save face" while selling to others an illusory concession brings notions of both dissonance-reduction as a primary driver for the ego-based brain, as well as the receiver's bias to see partial truths as whole truths. Most facilitation processes don't dive this deep for the absence of a negative is quickly and mistakenly taken as a presence of a positive. Christophe Morin and Patrick Renvoise, colleagues of mine in the neuroscience side of the sales effectiveness industry, have articulated a wonderfully clean and clear model of this when they speak of how to incorporate this forgotten aspect of marketing -- selling to the pain of the primal brain, not to the wishes and needs articulated on the surface of the rational brain. We will never "get there" if we settle on what people say.

So what could the U.S. do if there was a Chief Neuroscientist Office in the White House, in the wake of this WikiLeak crisis and they wanted to assist the President in building up the psychological immunity system around strategy?

Do a brain autopsy on your volumes of protocols. That is, let a neuroscience-based practitioner trained in the say/do gap differentials of humanity write a meta-level appendix, so to speak, to the instructions noted. What are irrational wishes that suppress natural drivers designed to always be the "paper that covers rock" over your protocols? How much of those protocols are truly designed in the egocentric brain to truly reduce our own anxiety? Seeking the dissonance in flipping assumptions over can be radically uncomfortable yet necessary in getting the ending out of the way in the beginning.

Have a neuroscience-oriented process facilitator with appropriate security clearance that is trained in linguistics and language biases observe meetings, record the dialogue, and analyze the scripts. Though most behind-the-scenes analysts in Washington are indeed psychologically and quantitatively trained to do the appropriate research to solve complex problems, I have yet to run across the bold addition of a brain guy here. We usually are trained to find what we know how to find when seeking analytical solutions, but what about using someone who critiques the act of finding itself? Wouldn't this be appropriately honoring Einstein's call to innovation when he stated no problem will be solved on the same level of thinking it was created on? Perhaps we have implicitly accepted a layer of knowledge finding that in and of itself is inherently faulty, way before we get to the answer that is usually driven by a confirmation bias anyways.

Know thyself, but not too well. While most political leaders will claim they have undergone leadership training, show emotionally intelligent and engaging styles, and have the adequate self-awareness to take on a fruitful cause for humanity, after assessing and coaching many high performers, I do not believe this to be true. But the kicker? It has nothing to do with the media slamming case, typically, of pointing out THEIR unique hypocrisy; it has to do with the fundamental denial that we are all hypocrites from an intention-to-action perspective and that is just "what is." Why is this threatening to admit when science has already proven that our consciousness to why we do what we do is in many ways a post-hoc explanation of something that was already initiated by neuro impulses? Perhaps media would never have someone like me on a CNN-like talk show because I would unplug the merry-go-round and the carnival lights that in many ways we seem to need in our high stimulation-based world. Who knows. But I would recommend nonetheless in settings like this a radical reformulation of leadership training for politicians, one that teaches them to not be so confident in their knowledge of self and be confident externally with that essential truth. This leadership dialectic would save the world.

True, this is my crazy wish list... but it is Christmas time, right?