The role of intuition in leadership: How it works

Clouds in the shape of a brain, with lightning

Recent research shows that the leaders of our biggest organisations use intuition on a regular basis and find it very important to their effectiveness – but what is intuition exactly?

Intuition operates in the realm between the conscious and the unconscious. Like a column of smoke, it appears before like a mirage us only to vanish when we try to represent it with words, “I can’t put my finger on it but…” Despite this, everyone has an opinion about intuition because we all experience the intuitive. We understand we do more than just crunch numbers when we make decisions. There is a feeling element to all decisions and we rely on them to guide us even if we are not aware of it – more in some situations than others and more by some people than others.

However, intuition is just one of a range or a continuum of feelings that can influence us; including emotions, moods, instincts (like sex drive and food), addictions, feelings of connectedness, communion, compassion and empathy. These feelings are primary and colour our experience as sentient beings. It’s as if we have two ‘minds’ and that is indeed the case.

The psychology of intuition

Intuitions and gut feelings that come into consciousness are better thought of as the product of one of two cognitive systems – the old left brain/right brain split. System one (the experiential or intuitive system) operates at the sub or pre-conscious level of awareness, is intuitive, holistic, relational, contextual and automatic. By contrast, system two (the analytical system) is conscious, controlled, analytical, rule-based, linear, reductionist and a-contextual. Simply put, we ‘feel’ with system one and think abstractly (theorise, plan and worry) with system two.

intuition systems table

I have depicted a right/left split here, but in terms of brain structure, it’s more of a vertical split than a lateral split. The easiest way to understand intuition is in terms of our evolution as a species. The ‘rational’ neo-cortex sits atop the earlier evolved reptilian and mammalian layers:

 Rational mind imade

The experiential system, composed of the reptilian (instinct) and mammalian (feelings and intuition) layers, is the older and greater part of our cognition and is basically the same as that of our non-human ancestors. Cognition and learning operates on associations between pattern recognition and feeling. Animals perceive patterns from multiple cues in the environment (like scents, visuals or sounds) and these become associated with positive or negative outcomes (finding food or being chased) and subsequent feelings. The more experience the animal has, the greater store of patterns it can rely on to survive.

Intuition works the same way for humans but we have an added layer that transcends and includes the baser layers of cognition. This is why we can sometimes feel conflicted between the “head and heart”. Because the experiential system operates unconsciously, we all learn intuitively all the time without even knowing it. We all know more than we know and therefore more than we can tell. Certain facial expressions, body language, patterns of behaviour, patterns in the data or in markets, as well as what it means for us, become associated with feelings. This is the basis for tacit knowledge which our intuition draws on. Chess Grandmasters use intuition by drawing on their tacit chess knowledge, through how good a move feels. This is why they can play simultaneous games and still win most. Firefighters intuitively draw on their experience of watching buildings burn and collapse over their careers. CEO’s get feelings about what will work or won’t, who is dodgy and who is capable because they’ve seen it all before, many times.

Sometimes intuitions will contradict all available data and it’s the job of a CEO and directors to draw on their experience to see past this and sometimes what everyone else is saying. According to the participants in my study, this is a key element of leadership.