Four Ways Leaders Use Intuition

by | May 4, 2014

Four Ways Leaders Use Intuition

Think, think, think. We live in a culture that values thinking. We have big thinkers, deep thinkers, creative thinkers, out-of-the-box thinkers. There are think tanks and a sculpture called, The Thinker. We think out loud; we think to ourselves and then we think nothing of it. And, if you put your thinking cap on, you realize that we give little value to the role of feelings in leadership. And yet, interviews with over seventy leaders confirm that you can’t think your way to the top. Becoming a successful leader requires developing both cognitive and intuitive skill.

Interviewed leaders identified four areas where intuition is an essential compliment to fact and analysis.

Decision-making. Leaders make decisions with far-reaching impact. At executive levels decision are frequently made without complete information. As one leader said, “If you have complete information then you should have made the decision long ago.” Market competitiveness and public urgency require quick decision-making. Over and over leaders talked of surrounding themselves with facts and analysis only to find there remained a void where judgment powered by both cognition and intuition must step in. Other leaders describe situations where the analysis “feels off.” In these examples, the leader’s intuitive sense kicks in to aid the final decision. Some of their biggest decision-making mistakes were when they did not trust their instinct.

Assessing people. Leaders spoke clearly of reliance on intuition when dealing with people. Leaders talk of hiring a candidate that “looks good on paper” even though their intuition is saying otherwise. Consistently, executives say they should have trusted their intuition. But assessing people is not just about hiring. Collaborating, negotiating, and partnering depend on the ability to “sense” people. In psychology there is a term “empathic accuracy” that refers to how accurately one person can infer the thoughts and feelings of another person.[1]

Visioning. Much of the business world values the systematic, step-by-step strategic planning process. In fact, strategic planning, whether based on hoshin kanri (take a look at this sample Hoshin Kanri Excel template here) or not, can be effective for getting from point A to point B. But the leader must identify point B. Setting a vision requires looking into the future. Trends can be studied but the future remains ambiguous. Leaders saw vision-setting as an inclusive process that draws on the perspectives of many. Leaders listen, learn, seek out opinions, and collaborate, but at the end of the day, they look to the future, engage cognition and intuition and identify point B. One leader said that intuition allowed her “see around corners.”

What to pursue and when to pursue it. This is the ability to sense the right moment to lead on a particular issue. William Duggan, author of Strategic Intuition, refers to having a “presence of mind” to discern the optimal time to move forward. Leaders must collaborate and influence others in order to move forward. They need the ability to sense the attitudes of employees and the tenor of a board. Examples ranged from the timing to introduce an employee wellness program (bringing yoga into a law office) or the timing to bring a political issue to the floor for legislative vote. If a leader chooses incorrectly it could mean the death of an idea. Intuitive sense is indispensable, and it complements analysis of facts and data. Both are necessary and neither alone is sufficient.

The next time you face one of these four situations, gather the facts, look at the analysis and make a conscious effort to ask what you sense about the situation. Does it feel right or is there a nagging feeling? If a feeling nags, these executives say to honor the feeling and ask more questions. It will make you a better leader.

[1] Wikipedia. Intuition (psychology). Retrieved January 7, 2013 from (psychology).


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Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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