Intuition: Why every good leader needs it

Business man drawing outline of a brain

Non-rational influences in the public domain have long either been ignored or seen as irrational – something to be avoided, negated, managed or corrected. 

Educational institutions prepare students for an organisational life in which instrumental rationality is assumed and expected. However, the assumption that leaders in organisations are exclusively rational in their behaviour and decision-making processes is one that has come under increasing scrutiny. Non-rational elements of cognition play an important role in organisations. In particular, research has shown that intuition use is both widespread in organisations, and increases with seniority and experience.

In research conducted with CEOs, directors and chairs of major Australian organisations, I found that all participants used intuition on a regular basis and that their reliance and trust in their intuition had increased throughout their career.

There are many definitions and manifestations of intuition (sudden insights, psychic intuition and philosophical intuition to name a few), however, the kind of intuition that is valued by decision-makers is ‘gut feeling’. Gut feelings are not emotions nor do they come out of the blue. Intuition in this sense can be defined a feeling of knowing or certainty about an issue, a person or a strategy based on previous experience and pattern recognition. Consequently, the more experience in a particular domain, the more your intuition is likely to be accurate. Intuition is useful because it can cope with more complexity than our rational minds. Analysis is good for quantitative problems where all relevant variables are known and can be accurately measured. However, this is seldom the case in a world of ever increasing change, complexity and uncertainty. As one participant commented:

‘When I went to Uni, all the problems were presented in a very neat and tidy way – this is the problem and this is how you solve it, but the problems presented to me in real life however, are always messy.’

Intuition is most valuable for evaluating qualitative features of organisational life such as people, culture and leadership, which are of course vital to an organisations success: ‘There are other variables, intangibles that are less readily determined, and you’re making decisions on a lot of those issues’. However, participants also had gut feelings about the accuracy of analysis – the weightings given and the assumptions upon which the analysis may be based:

We had the numbers and we went through a very rational process of doing a forecast every quarter and things, but just from kicking the tyres and wandering around my sense was that we were going to do better, and he said, yeah, my sense is that too.

Participants said they used intuition hand-in-hand with analysis and were most comfortable where they coincided. However, sometimes in a line-ball decision, or where there is no precedent or data, there is only intuition. Interestingly, intuitions often come first and analysis serves as a check or even a way to sell decisions to stakeholders. One thing became clear – experience had taught participants to listen to their gut feelings:  ‘It’s when you overrule your gut that you come unstuck’. Thus intuition was seen as very important to leadership because at the end of the day, so much of leading organisations hinges on decision-making and judgment.

My intuition, based on years of research of elite leaders, is that we are not only just beginning to understand and how it works, but just beginning to understand and acknowledge how integral intuition is to everything we do.

  • Excellent article. Intuition is a key skill for leaders. And the notion of ‘gut instinct’ is not just a metaphor.

    Informed by recent Neuroscience findings about the discovery of functional and complex neural networks or ‘brains’ in the heart and gut, we’ve completed 2.5 years of behavioral modeling research on the core competencies of these brains and how they communicate and integrate with the head brain. We’ve written about our findings and the models and techniques in our recently published book ‘mBraining’. See for more info.

    One of the things we’ve uncovered in our work is that much of intuition is processed in both the heart and gut brains, and indeed the gut brain goes through a sleeping cycle each night that mimics and integrates with the equivalent of the head brain. When the head brain is dreaming during REM sleep, the gut brain is undergoing RGM (Rapid Gut Movement) sleep. The research indicates that it is during these periods, that intuitions are being communicated from the gut and heart, via the vagus channels, to the head. There are lots of distinctions and techniques that come out of these insights, and match completely what you’ve been writing and talking about in this article.

    I hope you find this backup to this work on intuition as fascinating as we do.