Al Ries on Left Brainers and Right Brainers



Editor’s note: This is a guest post from author Al Ries.

Al is chairman of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta, Georgia, marketing strategy firm that he runs with his daughter and partner, Laura Ries.

Their latest book is “War in the Boardroom.” Their website is:

Al is a legendary marketing strategist and the bestselling author (or co-author) of 11 books on marketing including “Positioning”, “Marketing Warfare”, “Focus”, “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding”, “The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR”, and his latest, “War in the Boardroom” (2009).

Without further ado, here is Al Ries on Left Brainers and Right Brainers …

Left Brainers and Right Brainers

My first love was advertising and my first job was in the advertising department of General Electric in Schenectady, New York.

Almost everything I know about advertising and marketing I learned at GE, but only recently was I able to sort out the most important lesson learned there.

At GE, there were managers and doers. The doers did the advertising, the brochures, the slide presentations and the motion-picture scripts. The managers managed the people who did the advertising, the brochures, the slide presentations and the motion-picture scripts.

Guess who made the most money?

Among the doers, there were some grumblings about the unfairness of the system. So the managers devised a new approach they called “parallel paths of development.”

The better, more skillful doers were going to be as well compensated as the managers. In the months that followed, “parallel paths of development,” as far as I could tell, was more theory than actual practice. So I left General Electric and went to work for an advertising agency in New York City.

Decades later, I think I finally figured out the most important lesson learned in Schenectady. There are not only two kinds of jobs in a company, but there are also two kinds of people.

Left Brainers are Managers, Right Brainers are Doers

There are left brainers and right brainers. Left brainers are managers and right brainers are doers.

Left brainers are verbal, logical and analytical. Right brainers are visual, intuitive and holistic.

The vast majority of managers in America today are verbally-oriented left brainers, rather than visually-oriented right brainers. Why is this so? Because of the way people move up the ladder in the corporate world. There was a saying at General Electric: You don’t get promoted, you get elected.

Management is like politics. Your fellow doers determine who they would like to work for. A left brainer is an extrovert, particularly good at schmoozing with people. A right brainer is an introvert, totally outclassed when it comes to office politics.

As companies get older and bigger, their upper levels tend to be staffed almost exclusively with left brainers. As a result, the innovators (primarily right brainers) tend to leave or get pushed out.

What saves the situation, as far as the economy is concerned, are entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Herb Kelleher and dozens of others.

Entrepreneurs are Right Brainers with Exceptional Marketing Skills

Entrepreneurs are invariably right brainers who often turn out to be exceptionally good marketing thinkers, too. They are usually “visionaries” who focus on the “big picture,” sometimes suffering in the short term.

Since leaving General Electric, I have had a number of marketing jobs, including running my own advertising & PR agency. Over the years, however, I became frustrated by my inability to sell marketing programs to top management.

What seemed obvious to me didn’t seem at all obvious to the many companies we worked for including Procter & Gamble, Burger King, Merck, Coors, Digital Equipment, Intel, Western Union, Alcoa, IBM and many others. Time after time, our strategic ideas were shot down in the boardroom.

Why did this happen?

It got so bad for awhile, that I sometimes fell back on my fall-back position: “If this doesn’t run my way, I quit.

The “why” bothered me more than the loss of a client. Thanks to the marketing books I had written, we always seemed to be able to get new clients.

Why Managers Have Trouble Understanding Marketing Ideas

My eyes were opened a few years ago when Laura, my daughter and partner, pointed out that management minds are not on the same wave length as marketing minds. It was the first time I connected the left-brain/right brain concept to the world of business.

Laura had an insight of astonishing simplicity, yet it explained so much about the state of business today.

Management is a logical profession run by individuals who are highly analytical and often extremely intelligent. Marketing is not.

Marketing is not logical. What works in marketing is almost exactly the opposite of what seems to be the right thing to do.

You can’t sell an illogical idea to a logical manager. A left brainer finds it hard to understand ideas conceived by right-brain marketing people.

When Managers Zig, Marketers Zag

Take expansion, for example. Almost every company in the world is committed to expanding its line. More products, more markets, more distribution channels, more variations, more price points.

Take the U.S. airline industry. Every major carrier offers multiple classes of service and flies both domestic and international routes. That makes sense to a left-brain manager.

But not to a right-brain entrepreneur like Herb Kelleher who launched Southwest Airlines, the first “no-frills” airline. Coach only. Domestic only. No food. No pets. No advanced seating reservations. No inter-airline baggage exchange.

(Four of the five largest airlines in America have gone bankrupt and the fifth one, American Airlines, is losing money. In the last 10 years, American Airlines has had revenues of $195.2 billion and lost $4.3 billion. In the last 10 years, Southwest Airlines has had revenues of $64.6 billion and managed to make $4.7 billion in net profits.)

What would a right brainer suggest to a money-losing major airline in America?

Do the opposite of Southwest. Turn yourself into an all-first-class airline. That’s illogical, of course. That means “contracting” your business when every major company in the world wants to expand its business.

Right Brainers Create New Categories

Take new categories, for example. Most big companies will never introduce a new brand that tries to create a new category. Why? Because big companies are logical, research-driven organizations and consumers invariably reject concepts they don’t understand.

As entrepreneur Henry Ford once noted, consumers didn’t want an automobile; they wanted a faster horse.

Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola are more than 100 years old, yet neither company introduced the new brands that would become leaders in the soft-drink categories.

  • The first carbonated lemon-lime drink. (Seven-Up.)
    The first caffeinated citrus drink. (Mountain Dew.)
  • The first spicy cola. (Dr Pepper.)
  • The first sports drink. (Gatorade.)
  • The first all-natural drink. (Snapple.)
  • The first energy drink. (Red Bull.)

Red Bull, Snapple, Gatorade, Dr Pepper, Mountain Dew and Seven-Up were all introduced by entrepreneurs.

Less is More

Take the financial bailouts advocated by almost every major politician and business leader. It might be illogical, but as a marketing person I’m strongly opposed to the bailouts.     Why? Because I want a strong financial community, not a weak one. And the more financial institutions that compete in the marketplace, the weaker the industry. To strengthen the financial community we need fewer companies. Another example of less is more. Or contraction rather than expansion.

I’m not advocating a right-brain takeover of corporate America. Frankly business needs both: Logical, analytical left brainers to manage the business and intuitive, holistic right brainers to create the new ideas and concepts that will insure future success.

For that to happen, both sides need to understand each other better.

Where to Go For More

War in the Boardroom (Amazon)

Ries & Ries Web site

The Ries Report, with Al & Laura Ries (Videos)

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  1. Very eloquently put.

    In the end, I figured out I’m a right brainer.
    I would like an answer to this question – Can a left brainer start thinking like a right brainer or vice versa?
    If yes, what would be the recommended approach for the same?
    If not, the answer is very clear. Stop complaining and try and be smart at what best nature has offered you.

  2. Interesting. I hadn’t thought of it this way. I’m having trouble fitting what I know about my and my family into this model. Is this a continum or more that a person is this or that type?

    I’m primarily right brained, but I was brought up in a household with a doer father and an logic left-brained academic mother. My father was in management and had a hugely successful carrer at it for over 30 years before retiring.

    What is my father in your model? – He was a pilot in the military who never wanted to be in management, but then was made one. He subsequently made his way up the chain. But I don’t know that he was promoted because he was well liked so much as that he built a team to get things done and then brought that team with him if he changed jobs. He was very much into team dynamics and was smart enough to listen to his team for his blind spots. He often didn’t understand the emotions behind the blind spots, but could recognize the pattern and so let someone else on his team guide him. My mother would say that he used “will” to run his life (vs logic or emotion).

    Is this the entrepenural doer spirit and that’s why he was successful in management? Even though he never had and interest in starting his own company?

    And I wonder what am I? I seem to have somewhat of marketing knack and write music, but because of my upbringing, I have heavy thinking and logical tendencies. I’m a mutt. 🙂 I’ve often called myself a bridge builder because I can usually connect with most people’s point of view in some capacity. And I’m split quite often.

    J.D. strikes me as a mutt as well, though more focused.

    The ultimate question: Are there those who are in the middle who can help to bridge the gap between the types? Would you say that’s their role to assit in this understanding?


  3. Hmmmm… now i get it… I think…
    It’s no wonder why it is always them and us thing.
    Once I came to my manager (during last 4 years I had 7 managers…. LOL) and told him that I do not see him as a manager but as a business partner. At first he was shocked but then he seemed to take my approach of doing business together, each one is responsible for his own part, lifting each other and helping each other getting results. I escalate to him things that are beyond my control and he helps me allowing me to focus on what I am paid for – delivering our services. Managers can be right brainers too! 😉

  4. A sad pattern over the years that I have both observed and been a part of is the cross dicipline promotion paradigm. Much like your left and right brainers I have witnessed the best right hand brain folks get promoted into a left hand brain “management” job. It can work as you point out in the case of Gates and others but rarely does. I think right hand brain folks are leaders and not managers, a very distinct but often subtle difference. Great article.

    PS. Mellow Mushroom in Buckhead is my favorite pizza joint in the world (well bar Mikes in NYC I guess)…..

  5. This is a very interesting viewpoint and a great article. It strikes me that in my field (Engineering) almost everyone i interact with is left-brained. I struggle to think of anyone in any engineering team i’ve ever worked that was a pure right-brained person. I can see right-brained folks in sales, marketing, PR, and maybe even in design functions. But folks working on development… not so much. I think there are a number of ‘mutts’ as Rob mentioned. And these mutts tend to be the standouts that do very well at leading people and getting promoted. Pure left-brained folks close their doors and write code, or architect solutions or test. The mutts may not have that same drive to be code-productive for instance, but they tend to step up to provide vision and leadership.

    It would be interesting to see more discussion of what this continuum looks like, its clearly not an either/or. And its also interesting to think through the implications for teams in which the Doers are left-brained and the managers are more right-brained – like you’ll find at most technology firms.

    Mark, thanks for reminding me of Magic Mushroom. I grew up on that pizza and agree it is the best pizza _ever! 🙂

  6. Nice post. It doesn’t take long in the business world to come to the realization that people vary quite a lot in their strengths and motivations – right and left brainers being a coarse yet accurate categorization. I never thought about how these relate to marketing and management until now, and I couldn’t agree more.

    The challenge of course is that for an organization to reap the benefits of having a diverse set of “brainers”, everyone needs to be willing to not only understand, but appreciate and leverage each other’s strengths (managers & doers). I personally think the secret ingredient is figuring out how to reward teams over individuals, but that’s a pretty tough nut to crack.

    Thanks for the post Al.

  7. Great post. It bring forth a very intersting point – which, to be honest, I had never given a thought to. I just knew there were people in the org who had different opinions. But now after reading your article it starts to make sense – why the difference.

    This should help as good inputs when interacting with people in any org. I bet to be really there you need to have a balanced roght and left brain. Which surprisingly I have seen quite a few people have.

    Is there a way to achieve the perfect balance?


  8. I can see the argument clearly in this post and am looking forward to reading Mr. Ries’ books. I absolutely love marketing and advertising, and I’m moving my career back in that direction (away from engineering). I think of myself as being caught somewhere in the middle. I’m very extroverted and I love the big picture, but I also crave fulfilling tangible projects that in the end make the world a better place.

    I like that Mr. Ries argues for creativity and courage in these trying times (creating niche service airlines and refusing banking bailouts). Management-minded people tend to play things as safely and as logically as possible to avoid having to say they are sorry if things don’t work out well. “It’s just business. The projections showed this story…That wasn’t the case. We didn’t see it coming.”

    Here’s to entrepreneurs. I am hoping they’ll save this economy in 2009. Let’s all hope they continue to have the courage to speak up, invent, try new things.

    Thanks for a wonderful post and enlightening perspective, Mr. Ries.

  9. Hi Jason!

    Interesting article!
    I’ve used to be an art directer so the left brain / right brain typing is not new to me. I never thought of it in the managerial and executives postions though I work in advertising with these exact people. They definately have a higher understanding of the big picture plus the communication skills to get it done by delegating it to other people. Though their biggest complaints are finding the doers that get it done when they ask and do it well. They definately are team oriented and keep their teams close once they get clicking. You know when everyone knows whose good at what and they just click and get the results they need.

    I feel like I am a little of both. At different times in my life I am sometimes more of one then the other. Though I am quite analytical at times and very detail oriented. I love creating and teaching others to develop their talents.

    Thanks I will be seeing another side to the inner workings of executives and managers.

  10. I always saw myself as the introvert, the right brainer, but I spent much of my professional life acting as the extrovert, left brainer, manager. I have seen other people’s analysis over the years come to the same conclusions. Yet, the lessons do not seem to stick in the real world. You are absolutely right in your basic thoughts, yet, most of these thoughts have been floating around for decades without anyone paying attention. Is it too complicated? Or, maybe too simple? I liked Alik Levin’s comment — in the end it takes the equivalent of a partnership between the managers and the doers to make the average business really successful. The right and left’ers need to find a mid-brain where they can pool at least some of their resources to the benefit of both sides.

  11. I liked how you stated that “Management is like politics”. I find that that the greatest politicians achieve their goals by assessing their “adversaries” (are they left-brained or right-brained, etc.) and then form their strategies based on what they learned, rather than go in with one-sided strategies that may or may not work. Some of the greatest leaders I’ve seen today have the ability to switch between both sides. Great article!


  12. Do the opposite of Southwest. Turn yourself into an all-first-class airline. That’s illogical, of course. That means “contracting” your business when every major company in the world wants to expand its business.

    I’m reminded of Jack Welch and his early days as the CEO of GE where the company did too many different things and he concentrated the company into areas where it was either the top or second company in terms of market share. This was in the early ’80s when there was a bad recession going on which isn’t unlike now in some ways, *sigh*. GE became one of the biggest US companies in terms of market capitalization so this idea of focusing on what one is good at does have some successful predecessors.

  13. interesting read 🙂

    It took me quite a long time to figure out the differences of the two sides from the brain.

  14. I agree with comments of Jannie Funster .A person can be said that he is be prominently Left brained or Right brained . He can use the other side also effectively to give better results .

  15. Al, I have been a fan of yours for over 20 years, since the first time I read your book ‘Positioning’. I’ve read most of the rest of them since then, and have referred back to them often while toiling in the brand vineyard lo these many years.

    What I’ve always respected about your writing is that it reveals simple truths with disarming clarity. So too with this post, neurological inaccuracies aside. (i.e., the operational model of left vs right is not actually how our brains work. But it’s a useful enough metaphor in this case).

    I think the core of your thesis can be expressed thusly: ‘left-brainers’ make all of their decisions on the basis of what they’ve seen or done before. It’s the logical, rational thing to do, because you have the evidence of past experience to fall back on if things don’t turn out the way you planned. ‘Right-brainers’, on the other hand, make their decisions on the basis of what hasn’t happened yet. They are motivated by a vision of something that hasn’t been imagined. That’s what gets them excited. It’s their raison d’etre. And it’s always what gets them in trouble with the ‘left-brainers’.

    You are right: we need both. But the logicians hold the switch. Such a shame.

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