Should leaders trust their gut?

Should leaders trust their gut?

Before the arrival of US President, Donald Trump, my answer to this question would have been an unequivocal YES.

However, continually reading and hearing that Mr Trump is an instinctive leader who trusts his gut, has caused me to pause for thought.

I just feel very strongly, my instinct, my ability or talent – they want to make a deal,” Mr. Trump said of his meeting with Kim Jung-Un, thus committing American foreign policy to a gut feeling that North Korea will act in good faith, without a written agreement containing specific details or commitments.

So, does an advocate of relying on one’s gut in decision making such as Donald Trump mean that leaders should doubt or stop trusting their gut?

Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”  Steve Jobs

The only real valuable thing is intuition.” Einstein

Two of the acknowledged leaders in their respective fields – Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs – both place significant emphasis on intuition.  Jobs even went so far as to suggest that intuition “is more powerful than intellect”.

What is intuition?

Pretty much every one of us at some time or other, has experienced a gut feeling: butterflies in the stomach or some kind of pit in the stomach moment.  And in most cases, we pay attention to this gut feeling by deciding to take some form of action (even if the decision is not to do anything).  We very rarely ignore butterflies, a pit in the stomach feeling, hunches or spine-tingling sensations.

Neuroscience is starting to demystify intuition and provide greater understanding about this most elusive concept. Intuition is often defined as a form of knowing that is outside conscious thinking, reasoning and awareness. In other words, your intuition is another form of intelligence. It is a visceral knowing, whether you should go in direction A or B, for example.

We are also learning from neuro-biology that within our gut is a second brain. This second brain, or the enteric nervous system, is made up of around 100 million neurons.  When we experience an intuitive moment, our gut brain is communicating with the brain in our skull.

Neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, argues that what the body feels is as significant as what the mind thinks and, further, both functions are inextricably linked.

Intuition, then, is an innate, whole-body experience that we all possess. Our intuitive voice speaks much more frequently than most of us realise.

Indeed, our enteric nervous system or gut brain is the only part of the body that can say no to the brain; “That can say thank you, but no thank you, those are interesting signals, but instead down here in our belly, we’re going to do something else.”  (Amanda Blake: Your Body is Your Brain: Leverage your somatic intelligence to find purpose, build resilience, deepen relationships and lead more powerfully.)

Intuition is an essential leadership tool in complex and challenging times

Increasingly, thought leaders writing on leadership, argue that today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, require leaders to tap into the innate intelligence of their head, heart and guts.  For example, in their popular leadership book, ‘Head, Heart & Guts – How the World’s Best Companies Develop Complete Leaders’, David Dotlich, Peter Cairo and Stephen Rhinesmith make the case that leaders who operate only from their head are ‘incomplete leaders’.  ‘Whole’leaders, on the other hand, fully engage their head, heart and guts.

In a TEDx presentation, Marty Linsky, co-author of several books on adaptive leadership with Ronald Heifetz, argues that ‘true leaders’ use all of the intelligence available to them and go well beyond that of just their head brain.

And the answer is….

A 2010 McKinsey article argues that leaders shouldtrust their gut instinct but only when four tests are met, namely:

  1. The familiarity testhave you identified or experienced similar situation?
  2. The feedback testdid you get reliable feedback in past situations?
  3. The measured-emotions testare the emotions you have experienced in similar or related situations measured?
  4. The independence testare you likely to be influenced by any inappropriate personal interests or attachments?

These four tests offer a great way to assess the reliability of your intuition; however, the tests presuppose that you already have some awareness of your intuition.

In much the same way that you have cultivated, nurtured and developed your intellectual capacity over time, so too do you need to give time to getting to know and develop your intuition.

Get to know your intuition

One way to get to know your intuition is by keeping an Intuition Journal.  Use the journal to record:

  • The date
  • The sensation you experienced (e.g. butterflies in the stomach; a hunch; tingling in the spine, etc)
  • The location of the sensation (where in your body you notice the sensation)
  • The decisionchoiceaction you made (what did you do? how did the intuition inform your decision, choice or action?)
  • The outcome– what happened as a result

Enjoy discovering your intuition.