Leadership, Should I Decide with My Head or My Gut?

February 22, 2011

Many years ago, when I was younger and less experienced in business management, I was chatting with the MD of the company I worked for.

We were discussing risk management, as I’m a PMP certified Project/Program Manager and have been for over a decade.

We talked about Risk Management frameworks, and for him it all boiled down to his “gut” in terms of whether the risk seemed acceptable or not.

Now don’t get me wrong, he didn’t just make all decisions based on his “gut” – but it certainly did drive him in terms of requiring more/less validation before making the final decision.

At the time I thought, there must be a better way than just “gut” for determining this sort of thing.

Now, years later, I tend to agree with him. Your gut-reaction to a decision definitely gives you a sense of comfort or foreboding about a decision and its consequences.

So, this leads to the topic of Leadership and the soft-skills associated with being a good leader. Read on for further details.

What is Intuition ?

In simple terms, intuition is when we know something or know what to do without necessarily knowing why.

What to do just comes to us in a flash of insight. Some intuition is instinctive. For instance, if someone starts running after you with an axe, you will most likely have the instinctive (and intuitive) response of either defending yourself or running away. Moreover, your reaction would be entirely rational.

Other intuition is the result of years of training and knowledge building. Police officers, firefighters, military commanders, emergency medical care providers, airline pilots and many others spend years in learning and honing their skills in order to react in an instant with the optimal solution.

Intuition …. So What ?

Our society expects specialists like those I’ve covered above to make high quality intuitive decisions quickly and accurately and then execute them effectively.

A surgeon with many years’ experience in the operating room has much better intuition than a newly-graduated doctor. The same goes for a highly experienced fireman.

In his bestseller Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes how a veteran firefighter was able to “sense” a change in situation and order all of his crew out of a house just before it collapsed. He was unable to identify the steps in his decision; he just “knew” that it was time to get out.

The same goes for experienced leaders and executives in all walks of life. With many years of life experience, they can just tell if someone “has it” or doesn’t, and no amount of rational deliberation with convince them otherwise.

However, not all intuitive decisions are equal; and in fact some are wrong – or very wrong.

Experience, and in particular depth of experience, is a reliable indicator for a “good” outcome. Conversely, some situations are so novel, that intuition is next to useless and can even be counterproductive. In that case, deliberate decision making is needed in order to think through the factors impinging on the decision and to ensure that a variety of courses of action are considered.

The key here for a business leader is to consciously know whether they have direct or empirical evidence of an intuitive recommendation being “good”. If the answer is YES – follow your intuition; if the answer is NO – you will to take a more deliberate (and deliberative) and therefore rational approach.

Intuition versus Deliberation

As a guide, the following situations lend themselves to intuitive responses because of immediacy:

  • During an emergency, that requires an immediate response in order to save lives;
  • When there are direct threats to physical safety;
  • When a team has gotten lazy or overly reactive in the face of risk, and requires inspirational leadership to fix the situation.

There are situations where both Intuition and Deliberation are suited:

  • When you’ve been made an offer for the sale of your business;
  • When you’re considering “dropping” an existing client;
  • When you need to take action to correct the behaviour of a team/staff member;
  • When you’re considering a merger with another business;
  • When you’re considering taking on another business partner;
  • When you’re considering Product/Service extensions to your business.

Most other situations have enough time built in to them to allow at least some level of deliberation. It is prudent to involve outside experts and to form an advisory team when faced with unusual situations that will require imagination and resolve to turn around.

Finally, intuition does play a role in deliberate decision making because of its ability to generate deeper insights and provide innovative solutions.

Advertisements