How does one succeed? Can you be truly happy? Is success in life, based on the skills we learn at a conscious level, those things that we strive to develop, or is success in life somehow rooted in the unconscious, which we often play down or do not find the need to develop? Everyone wrestles with these questions and that’s what makes Social Animal  so appealing in a secular setting and in some ways for the Christian as well. It also has significant implications for leadership.
Brooks tells the fictional story of Herold and Erica. In this narrative, Brook expounds on the impact of the unconscious over the conscious, the emotional over the rational, social connection over earned degrees, nature over nurture. Herold and Erica make decisions, some good, some not so good. They are impacted by their family and culture and by their social structures and their choices. All along being controlled by a force and forces that played often in the background of their lives.
Their story illustrates the point that the conscious mind is deluding itself into believing that rational thinking and the development of the rational mind is the only thing that matters. “The conscious mind writes the autobiography of our species. Unaware of what is going on deep down inside, the conscious mind assigns itself the starring role. It gives itself credit for performing all sorts of tasks it doesn’t really control.”  However, it is the unconscious mind— the inner mind, that quiet introvert buried deep inside—that plays the greater role in who we are and who we become.  It formulates it’s life based on “emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits and social norms.”  Emotional intelligence, social connections, and character are more important in shaping our lives than IQ. 
For the secular person, who chooses to live within the immanent framework, this concept can be somewhat freeing and even self-satisfying. For it speaks clearly that we need nothing outside of ourselves—we have our own inner god that guides us. We are, in fact, gods!
However, for the Christian, it speaks to a deeper understanding of the way God works in us—God works from the inside out. It speaks to the idea that who we are is more important than what we do. It speaks to the idea that God does his best work healing in the deepest recesses of our lives—our spirit. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. (Psalms 51:6)
The implications for leadership and middle leaders, in particular, are significant. As part of my dissertation research, I am looking at how middle leaders make complex decisions in complex situations and in implications of reflective practice in complex decision making. Being a leader is all about making decisions. Those who have researched the use of reflective practice in processing complex decisions find that professionals who face complex situations that call for complex answers often navigate the complexities outside of technical rationality, book knowledge, class knowledge or even organizational policy. They often make these types of decisions on a gut feeling.  If decision makers are looking inward to make complex decisions there would be strong implications here for Brooks research. If it is the hidden forces and not, for example, technical rationality, that informs our decisions than the implications for decision making are huge, especially for those who must make complex decisions within complex circumstances and who often rely on gut feeling to make these decisions.
There is also place here for McIntosh’s and Rima’s understanding of that which drives us. Can the often undetected dysfunctions of a leader that according to McIntosh “drives” the leader, get in the way of the complex decisions that are made on intuition alone?  Are the hidden forces of which Brooks speaks playing into decisions that based on intuition? I may be one reason for the less than good decisions that are sometimes made by leaders. If we are not healthy internally then how can the decisions we make based on those internal components be healthy decisions? On the other hand, it leaves room for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to inform our lives and decision making.
- David Brooks. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. Reprint ed. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012.
- Ibid., xi.
- Ibid., 377.
- Ibid., viii.
- Ibid., xi.
- Donald A. Schön. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. 1 ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1983, 18.
- Gary L. McIntosh, and Samuel D. Rima. Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: How to Become an Effective Leader By Confronting Potential Failures. Revised ed. Baker Books, 2007, 181-187.