Leadership is a skill that is acquired through deliberate effort and practice. With time and experience, leadership skill becomes autonomous in nature that can lead to efficient information processing and decision-making. According to Glenn Llopis, “The most successful leaders are instinctual decision makers.” The gut-feel that often successful leaders use as a reliable decision-making tool is nothing but years of accumulated life experiences and observations. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, says: "You don't just remember facts, whether the outcome was good or bad, but you remember whether what we felt was good or bad. That tandem of fact and associated emotion is critical: what we construct as wisdom over time is actually the result of cultivating that knowledge of how our emotions behaved and what we learn from them."

Sheri Staak, a business leader, further expands this concept of intuitive leadership. She explains that not every situation needs gut-based decision making. The gut feeling, in a sense, is a sophisticated emotion. However, the emotionally driven reactions are not gut feelings. With constant practice, a leader develops the know-how of when to rely on a knee-jerk reaction as intuition and recede from distorting the right course of action. Garry Klein, a psychologist, says that a leader needs to substantiate gut with information by deliberately evaluating and contextualizing with the situation. This becomes necessary especially when leaders tend to rely solely on gut. For example, Steve Jobs admitted that one of his gut decisions, to hire John Scully, came back to haunt him. To avoid such incidents, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, suggests postponing intuition till  “You do as much homework as possible beforehand so that the intuition is as informed as it can be.”

Now, you might be wondering that intuition could be a trait one is born with. The fact is, just like leadership, intuition can be learned. According to Jamie Glass, president of Artful Thinkers, intuition is not inherent character but a learnt one. The analytic engine is within to collect and refer the experiences in decision-making. And the big data of your experiences needs to be utilized to develop gut-check analysis through repetitive decision-making. In other words, it is utilizing your brainpower in analyzing and taking the right course of action.  The key is gaining more experience. Go out and interact more, take initiatives that will widen your scope of learning and experiencing.  Build your experiences and build on them to get the results that are meaningful. Moreover, learning and experiencing both necessitate an interaction with the world around. This is applicable more so in today’s businesses as the need of this hour is social solutions.  

We human beings are deeply social and are wired to connect, reflect and automate our responsiveness. As leaders, when these pattern-detecting and matching abilities are practiced, then the intuitive nature can be used as strategically as any other rational standard operating procedure. E. Waters points out, “the trouble we handle best is the trouble we avoid in the first place”. Therefore, leaders who are open minded to exercise reflective thoughts and actions could build upon intuitive thinking and lead even in turbulent situations. Champions of a ‘sixth sense’ reason that science is yet to explain the higher levels of consciousness because intuitive insights originate from experiences that sort of accounts for direct knowing.

According to the Cognitive Experiential Theory, Experiential and Rational are the two chief cognitive systems. The Experiential System is the automatic and intuitive part that processes information instantaneously and enable response based on previous long-term experiences. The Rational System is the aware factual thinking that enables logical conclusion based on previous and new experiences. Talula Cartwright, from the Center of Creative Leadership (CCL), explains that intuition develops from years of learning and experiencing different situations and solutions-both good and bad. She further explains that, leaders can engage in whole brain activities through conscious reflective practices and bring out the intuitive thought process into forefront in decision-making.  The reflective practices attribute to engaging the whole brain by connecting the rational to intuitive by accessing the data, facts, analysis, values, experiences and so on. 

For beginners, it is essential to understand that intuition, like many people think, is not execution of beliefs in vagueness, but it’s the quest to congruently ponder the hunches with efficacy. Like Talula posits, as the leaders move up in the organizations, their experiences also grow. Hence, intuition is a byproduct of reflective practice on the years of background in problem solving and implementing solution. Exercising intuition is a deliberate effort that can be built upon by some reflective techniques such as journaling, imaging, analyzing and dreaming.

  • Journaling is writing and sometimes even drawing your thoughts and reflecting on your experiences to connect with your values, priorities and life lessons. This habit of journaling and introspecting will build perception skills and trust in your intuition.
  • Imaging is another deliberate effort to create mental pictures to connect the dots and make sense of the challenging situation. At times, some images can stimulate the mind. And making analogous sense to the image and the problem, can lead to lateral solutions. Imaging can also help in reinforcing the goal ahead. For example, athletes, practice mental imaging of winning.
  • Dreams can serve as helpful reflective tools. Not everyone can remember the dreams, but at times dreams stay afresh and noting them down assist during introspection. Some people practice a process called seeding a dream in order to connect with their deeper thoughts and problems by stimulating dreams.
  • Analysis technique is used to develop elegant thinking by combining analytical and problem solving capabilities with reflective practices to microscopically disintegrate or weave to develop optimum options.

The next time you have to take hard decisions and are faced with choices like Debra Kaye propounds “do you use Intel or Intuition?”, take a holistic approach and rev your internal analytic engine to lead by combining the math (facts) and art (intuition) of decision making.

References and further readings

  • Cartwright, Talula. “Feeling Your Way Enhancing Leadership Through Intuition.” Centre for Creative Leadership. Center for Creative Leadership, May/June 2004. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.
  • Baer, Drake. "The Neuroscience Of Trusting Your Gut." Fast Company. N.p., 6 Dec. 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2014.
  • Glass, Jamie. "Good Business Leaders Use Intuition to Make Decisions." Artful Thinkers. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2014.
  • Kaye, Debra. "Do You Use Intel Or Intuition? The Psychology Of Tough Decisions. Fast Company. N.p., 7 June 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.
  • Llopis, Glenn. "The Most Successful Leaders Do 15 Things Automatically, Every Day." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 18 Feb. 2013. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.
  • Maxwell, John. "Good Leaders Learn How to Trust Intuition, Not Just Logic." Widgets RSS. N.p., 5 May 2003. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.
  • Quarterly, Mckinsey. "Insights & Publications." Strategic Decisions: When Can You Trust Your Gut? N.p., Mar. 2010. Web. 14 Mar. 2014
  • Rock, David. "Why Organizations Fail." Fortune Management Career Blog RSS. N.p., 23 Oct. 213. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.
  • Staak, Sheri. "Intuitive Leadership." Sheri Staak RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.
  • Waters, Everett. “Cognitive Self Theory.” Psychology department, Class Notes. University of Minnesota. Web. 13. Mar. 2014. <http://www.psychology.sunysb.edu/ewaters/345/2007_self/self_class_notes.pdf/>
  • Zwilling, Martin. "Too Many Leaders Still Rely on Their 'Golden Gut'" Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 25 Mar. 2012. Web. 11 Mar. 2014.

About the Author


Eshna is a writer at Simplilearn. She has done Masters in Journalism and Mass Communication and is a Gold Medalist in the same. A voracious reader, she has penned several articles in leading national newspapers like TOI, HT and The Telegraph. She loves traveling and photography.

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