Watching a television program about how American pioneers trained and employed oxen in the 19th century reminded me of how our brains work.
Like a yoke of oxen, our bilateral brain hemispheres are hitched side-by-side, meeting the world head-on. But also like the bovine, they don’t always pull together.
In addition to their names, oxen are also identified by their position in the yoke: the animal most favored by the driver is the nigh ox, always on the left, while the off ox is always on the right. The nigh ox is usually the senior animal and takes the lead in pulling the load.
Brain hemispheres also have names – left and right. For most of us, one or the other is our nigh hemisphere as it seems to be the most dominant in our behavior, but we favor it more because of who we are than its location. So for effect and fun, I’ll be referring to our brain hemispheres as our nigh ox, and our off ox.
According to experts, when we think more logically, rationally, and analytically, like an engineer, the left hemisphere is the dominant, nigh ox. For someone more creative, intuitive, subjective, and emotive, the right hemisphere is pulling the hardest as our nigh ox. Gender also seems to play a role in our nigh/off predisposition. But I’m leaving that angle alone today as a tangent potentially fraught with peril – for me.
All of this brain stuff might be unremarkable to small business owners if it weren’t for two things: 1) As leaders, we’re called upon to perform and respond to issues that are closer to our off ox than our nigh ox; 2) regardless of our nigh ox, we have to work with those whose behavior favors the other side of the brain yoke. Let’s take a look at examples of how these two realities manifest in the marketplace and in our small businesses.
As a small business owner, you likely won’t have the luxury of favoring one ox over the other for very long. Regardless of which brain hemisphere is your nigh ox, any given day is filled with demands on both, and often simultaneously. For example, developing a marketing campaign causes the right brain to take the lead with creativity. But your left brain will be pressed into service by the cold, hard analysis of media buys, demographic strategy, and ultimately, operational fulfillment of the business your plan generated.
The good news is that as your business grows, you can look forward to delegating your off ox work to an employee whose oxen are opposite yours. But as the leader, the small business reality is that you must be able to successfully work and do business with people whose nigh ox is your off ox. For example:
• If your nigh ox is right-brain creativity, you still have to employ, manage, and work with left-brain accountants and engineers.
• If your nigh ox is the by-the-numbers, detailed analysis-loving left brain, you’ll have to suffer gladly the seemingly non-linear expressions of those whose nigh ox pulls from the right side of the yoke. Indeed, a critical counter-balancing trait your nigh ox desperately requires.
But all of that is inside the organization. Outside your four walls, you have to be able to quickly assess which ox any particular prospect or customer favors. For example, you no doubt sell stuff desired by customers of both ox yoke configurations. Even though the two groups buy the same product or service, they likely lead their purchasing process with the side of the brain that’s nigh to them. Consequently, regardless of which ox is nigh to you, you’ll need selling skills to help you lead with the other.
Although in the minority, there are whole-brain individuals whose brain hemispheres pull together, like having two nigh oxen. Members of this group are naturally well-suited for small business. But whether by protoplasm or by practice, more than any corporate CEO, a small business CEO has to perform like a whole-brainer to deal with the bi-polar demands of the workplace and the marketplace.
Write this on a rock … Small business owners are required to behave as if they have two nigh oxen.