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Why three brains are better than one


You may be familiar with the expression, ‘Two brains are better than one’? Well, imagine if you had three. The good news is you do and business leaders are now realising the significant advantages that can be gained by understanding how the three brains work and how to tap into their collective power.

Some advantages include:

• Quicker decision making;
• Being able to drive change more effectively;
• Increased employee engagement; and
• Communicating more authentically.

The science

Neuroscientists have discovered that we have three independent brains in our body, one in the head, the heart and the gut. Each involves complex neural networks, completely independent of each other and with a different purpose and function from the other.

Neuro-cardiology research by Dr Andrew Armour showed that the heart has a complex neural network containing neurons, motor neurons, sensory neurons, interneurons, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells. The complexity of this network allows it to qualify as a brain.

Further research by neurobiologist Dr Michael Gershon discovered the brain in the gut. His 1998 book The Second Brain described the brain in the gut as the ‘enteric’ brain that utilises every class of neurotransmitter found in the brain located in our heads and, just like the brain in the heart, it can learn, remember and process information independently.

Leading with the head, heart and gut

Harvard lecturers and authors of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Marty Linksy and Ron Heifetz also emphasise the important role that the head, heart and gut play in leadership. Their mantra is that technical leadership is above the neck (from the head), and adaptive leadership is below the neck (from the heart and gut).


Decision making

When making decisions it is critical that all three brains are involved. Without the head, the decision may not be properly worked through; without the heart, the emotional connection and energy will not be sufficient to care or prioritise the decision; and without the gut; attention to risk, or even the willpower to act on the decision, will be insufficient. Understanding how to use your three brains to make decisions is critical for leaders.

A senior leader recently shared with me how this played out for her. She needed to make a decision about whether or not to make the final payment for an ex-employee’s final tuition fees. The company had agreed years ago to sponsor the employee but he had recently left the organisation after years of service. She said that the cost was nominal and logically there was no expectation to pay but when she tapped into the heart and the gut she said it just felt like the right thing to do. Tapping into the wisdom of the three brains made the decision easier for her.

Communicating with the three brains

Additionally, knowing how to communicate in a way that is directed at the three brains is just as critical. Too often in business the way we communicate is directed only at the brain in the head, in other words in a very logical way. When leaders connect to all three brains, especially when communicating change, they can provide clarity, create a connection and evoke conviction. When done right it can significantly increase their ability to drive real change.

Andrew Thorburn, the CEO at the nab, is an example of a leader that appeals to all three brains when leading change. I recently heard him speak about the importance of role modeling as a leader. To illustrate his point he shared a story about teaching his son to drive. When his son changed lanes too quickly after putting on the indicator, Andrew said to him ‘When you change lanes, you need to leave the indicator on for a few seconds to indicate to the people around you that you are changing lanes’ to which his son replied ‘But Dad you don’t do that’. Andrew shared this story to connect and evoke conviction with his audience, and it worked. I have since heard several leaders retell that story to their teams, demonstrating that the engagement and connection is immediate and long-term.

It is no surprise that companies are developing self-awareness in leaders to enable them to lead from the head, heart and gut. As Aristotle said ‘Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.’


About the author:

Gabrielle Dolan works across Corporate Australian helping leaders humanise the way the lead by being more ‘real’. Her latest book Ignite: Real leadership, real talk, real results, is available online at all major retailers. To find out more head to