Intuitive Leadership

May 28, 2010

Much has been written of late about how intuition plays into strong leadership. For example, Malcolm Gladwell, in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, describes how our initial split second assessment of a situation often yields better results than months of belabored “rational” research.

Gladwell cites three art historians examining a supposedly authentic 6th century kouros sculpture. The first, Federico Zeri found himself fixated on the figurine’s fingernails. Evelyn Harrison, saw it and immediately expressed regret that the Getty museum had purchased the piece, although she couldn’t say why. And, Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, unable to cite a concrete reason, exclaimed, “They just don’t come out looking like that.” No one could articulate the problem, but their intuitive knowing was at work.

Valuing the three historians “knowing” pushed the museum to dig deeper and found that the accompanying documentation was faulty and the statue, although it had passed rigorous chemical and X-ray testing, in subtle ways did not match the proposed time period. As a result, the Getty Museum updated their catalog to state that the sculpture might be authentic or a forgery.

Depending on our educational training or discipline, allowing our intuition to play into decision making might be a foreign concept. Meeting with a  high tech business executive this week reminded me of that fact. He remarked, “I have worked most of my life to find rational answers to problems. I try to put the science behind all that I do. But, after 10 years of working closely with potential clients, I can tell you if someone is going to buy from us, and if not what will trip up the sale. I can’t give logical reasons why I know if an opportunity is worth pursuing, but time after time I’m usually proven right.”

In my experience, intuitive leadership is a two-part process. First, we need to pay close attention to our gut reactions and see them as potentially valuable information. Next, it is practicing deciphering our internal tea leaves.

I notice that placing ourselves in novel or even uncomfortable experiences fosters better intuitive leadership.  When we are in situations that do not allow us to fall back on logical approaches to make our decisions, we are forced to step back and look at any data that might be coming our way, even if it is a tightness in our chest or a strange thought that drifts through consciousness.

In May, my “practice point” was to spend two weeks walking with our son Cody across half of northern Spain. A 1,200 year old pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, is now a cultural icon of Europe. Folks come from around the world, to walk through rain, snow and heat to reach the western edge of the country, once considered the end of the world. Together, the travelers stay in dorms or “albergues” and work their way at different speeds along the established trail.

Cody and I would awake each morning with hopes of walking somewhere between 20 to 35 kilometers. Each afternoon, we would also hope to land somewhere that had space for us to sleep. In some towns you can call ahead for reserve a bed or two, in other places it is first come, first serve.

Since we didn’t know how long other travelers would walk, how many were on the trail and how early they would leave, Cody and I could guess and estimate, but we were clearly information short on many fronts.

Trying to pay attention to how a decision “felt” became a helpful guide in our choices. I can’t say I felt psychic, but after a few days on the trail, we started to be able to guess pretty darn well what might be a good next step. I appreciated that constant practice in listening and am noticing it has further refined how I am making decisions.

I must add that I was lousy at intuition when I was exhausted! As Cody will tell you, there were times when I wasn’t be able to problem solve my way out of the simplest of situations. Tired and hungry clouded any insight I might have had on our circumstances. Deduction — good listening depends on good living.

I thus pose the following questions:

How much attention do you give to your intuitive natureWhat might provide you practice in intuitive leadership, orHow might you actively place yourself in a place of discomfort so you can learn to listen better?

I have a hunch that answering these questions might provide valuable data as you move forward as leaders. 

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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