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Leading by Instinct
Have you ever had to make a decision and it just didn’t feel right? As leaders we make decisions all day that have a direct impact on those we lead. We aim to get them right and use all evidence at our disposal to ensure that we give ourselves the best chance of doing so. Occasionally, we’ll be faced with a decision that has us feeling uneasy and a little voice in our heads starts nagging that something is not right. You know that feeling that makes you go back and check that you’ve turned off the iron or makes you hesitate just that fraction before you cross the road in front of a car. We all have those stories when we ‘just knew’, when we had a ‘gut feeling’. Using our instincts has long been a mechanism used for survival. Our ancestors used instinct to recognise that big prehistoric monsters coming over the horizon were dangerous and needed to be avoided. In the modern world our instincts protect us from the metaphorical monster and if used correctly can assist us to navigate the complex nature of leadership.
There is a theory that trusting your gut instincts may be the result of years of experience playing on your subconscious guiding you away from a path you have been down before. Some call it instinct, some intuition, some relying on their gut. Research out of John Hopkins and Harvard Medical has supported a growing body of evidence linking the connection between the gut and the brain. They have identified that within the walls of our digestive system is the enteric nervous system (ENS) which acts as the brain of the gut. The ENS links directly to the brain via the central nervous system on what is known as the gut-brain axis. This axis allows for two way communication between the brain and the gut sending and receiving impulses, and responding to experiences and emotions. Any time you get a physical reaction when faced with decision the axis is at work. If you get a light feeling in the stomach when excited by an idea it’s a pretty good sign that this is an opportunity worth pursuing. On the other hand if you have a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach and there is a sense of apprehension it’s pretty clear that this is a definite no. This system acts like an internal moral compass.
There are many great stories of exceptional leaders who are said to have great instincts; they have the capacity to read situations and react to them with a clarity that defies logic. They are able to pick up on subtle clues, patterns and changes to behaviour and automatically make a judgement without a thorough analysis. Is it a skill they are born with or is it something that can be developed? I believe it is something that can be developed, if you take time to identity the signs. Intuitive leaders subconsciously tune into these signs. The gut- brain axis connects to the limbic system of the brain where all of our habits, emotions, experiences and feelings are stored. This section of the brain is actually where all decision making happens and plays a vital role in action selection allowing us to decide between several possible behaviours to execute at any given time. Intuitive leaders can tap into this subconsciously drawing on previous successes and failures using this stored data to guide their instincts. You know when you just can’t put your finger on it, you can’t explain why you know you just know, that’s a culmination of your previous experiences reacting to the situation and letting you know to think deeper about the decision you’re about to make. That’s why we ‘sleep on it’ or ‘mull it over’ our gut instincts are telling us that our first reaction needs further consideration.
So what does this mean for us on a day to day basis? For me, if it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t. In a system where rigorous analysis of data sets, increasing levels of accountability, compliance and fiscal responsibility challenge decision making it can be a brave decision to say no in the face of mounting evidence. Whilst all indications might be overwhelmingly in favour of a pathway, if it doesn’t sit right then take some time to think it through before making the final call. I’ve started to keep track of situations when I’ve had to make a decision and I’ve had an initial ‘gut reaction’. I am hoping that over time I can actually build up a profile of when my instincts where right and when they were off track. I’m not allowing my gut reactions to override all decisions making, that would be foolish, I’m just monitoring. What I’ve noticed is that my gut instincts have the ability to subconsciously read a situation, they pick up on ‘the vibe’ whilst my conscious mind is running the analytics. As my brain rationalises my gut will instinctively guide, the pair working in unison to survey the environment within which I am working. I’d have to say that so far my instincts have been pretty accurate and have aligned nicely to the supporting evidence behind the decision making process. In general, I’ve found when I’ve had to trust my gut; I have felt good about the decision believing that what I was doing was right. Obviously not all decisions will have a gut reaction, most made on a daily basis are founded in logic and reason, but tuning in when the odd situation arises may be useful.
We all have looming deadlines; we all feel pressure to make decisions but as leaders we need to take time to consider the implications prior to making them. When the situation arises when the gut says wait but the mind says go, I believe there are a few things you can do.
- Firstly determine if there actually is a choice, sometimes despite your instincts there is no choice, the decision can only go one way. If there is a choice, does it have to be a yes or no answer? Are there other possibilities that are a mixture of both?
- Take time to think of the pros and cons. Look at the decision from an alternate point of view and see if you’d make the same decision.
- Has your intuition clouded your judgment? Remember it’s influenced by past experiences.
- Does it feel right? Are you able to rest comfortably knowing that you made the decision?
- Finally, allow yourself time to make the decision.
I know there have been times when I’ve had to make a judgment call and for no particular reason it just didn’t feel like the right decision. Despite the logic, the reason and the mounting evidence I just had a gut feeling that this was not the right option so I chose not to do it. The next time you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach when making a decision and you just can’t seem to figure out why, I’d ask that you consider your instincts, they may be better than you thought.