The Dangers of Intuitive Leadership

business woman leading meeting

“There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.”

That’s from Malcom Gladwell, author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. History backs up his assertion with countless examples of inexplicable snap decisions that turned out to be pivotal:

  • The skinny race horse has knobby knees and a losing record. But auto salesman Charles Howard has a “feeling” it can be a future champ. Howard enlists a new trainer and jockey—and Seabiscuit becomes horse racing’s all-time prizewinner.  
  • Hitler’s blitz has London under siege. During one air raid, Prime Minister Winston Churchill is dining at 10 Downing Street when a bomb hits nearby. On a “hunch,” he orders his staff to leave the kitchen. Moments later, a bomb obliterates it.
  • Ray Kroc describes it as a “funny-bone instinct.” Following his gut, he ignores his lawyers’ advice and borrows $2.7 million to buy out the fledgling franchise he helped build. Today, McDonald’s serves 68 million people daily in 100 countries.

After researching hundreds of mind-blowing hunches, Gladwell was still puzzled by the mystery of intuition: “Did they know why they knew? Not at all. But they knew.”

In a recent blog post, I shared “Four Questions for Leaders” that my colleague Jason Hodges challenged our monthly gathering to dive into. During that same conversation, Jason brought up the topic of intuitive leadership. He pointed out that, although intuition has its benefits, there are also dangers that the leader should be aware of.

Before we look at the risks he uncovered, let’s define just what is an intuitive decision?

What Is Intuition? 

Intuition is the ability to understand something without the need to rationally think it through. An intuitive leader will usually come to a conclusion through instinct rather than conscious rationalization—even when it doesn’t seem to make sense.

A large percentage of high-profile leaders can make difficult decisions quickly. What’s their secret? They’ve learned to trust their intuitive instincts. As Bill Gates puts it, “Often, you have to rely on intuition.” It’s no wonder that many business people look up to these intuitive leaders with envy, treating them like superheroes. Awestruck, they yearn for this same talent: “I wish I could think fast like them and make snap decisions that way,” goes the thinking.

Fortunately, the mysterious gift of intuition is not reserved for the elite few. If we think back, we’ve all had times when we relied on a “hunch” or a “gut feeling” that turned out surprisingly well. Maybe it was picking a stock (and beating the odds) or changing your route to work (and avoiding a pileup). It might have been love at first sight (which led to happy ever after). Or maybe you sensed something fishy at a job interview (and withdrew your application). Big or small, these decisions were intuitive. 

Somehow, your subconscious mind was able to pick up on things in the environment that you were not consciously aware of. Intuition can alert us to danger (like a bear behind a tree) or opportunities (like hiring the next great sales rep). 

So where are the dangers?

We tend to focus on the positive outcomes of using intuition (they sure make for better anecdotes) but there’s at least an equal number of negative results out there. And there’s an even bigger, unseen problem: Jason explained that a leader’s ability to “intuit” can inadvertently sabotage the cohesiveness of a team. 

Four Dangers of Intuitive Leadership

1. The Danger of “My Way or the Highway”

Intuitive leaders often have a need for speed. They honestly believe they’ve got too much on their plates to slow down and be reflective or (gulp!) ask for advice. This trait is good when a rapid response is needed—like if the building’s on fire, or when an offer will be withdrawn in a matter of minutes. 

This is the person you want when there’s no time for analyzing data. If you’re rushed to the ER with a heart attack, do you want the doctor who immediately takes action, or the guy who sits down and consults a stack of medical textbooks and case histories?

That’s the upside of following your gut.

Here’s the downside. The speed of an intuitive leader often equates to narrow mindedness. As a coach, I’ve worked with numerous successful leaders over the years, many of them intuitive. And over time, I’ve noticed almost all of them lack patience.

It plays out like this: An intuitive leader states the problem, followed by, “I just came up with a great solution. Case closed. Next?” Because they think so fast and are so sure of themselves, they’re often not willing to hear anyone else’s ideas. 

I’m not here to beat anyone up. This behavior usually isn’t because they’re selfish or egotistical (although that sometimes may be the case). It happens because they don’t have the patience to listen to other views, especially when they believe their solution is ultimately going to be used anyway. “Why waste time with inferior alternatives?”

Sadly, this shuts them off from people with different skill sets or life experience. Leaders (no matter how brilliant) would do better to open their minds to the possibility that no one individual has a monopoly on problem solving or creativity. Although they will likely be the quickest one in the room to devise a viable solution, there may be—believe it or not—even better ways to achieve the same goals.

2. The Danger of Not Understanding the Problem

The lightning-quick processing of an intuitive leader can lead to misunderstanding the situation and making errors in judgement. 

In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman claims that the human mind basically works in one of two ways: System 1 is the intuitive, “gut reaction” way of thinking. System 2 is the analytical, “critical” way. System 1 (fast) is based on first impressions and instinct. System 2 (slow) is based on reflection and analysis.

It’s no surprise that relying on System 1 can lead intuitive leaders to wrong conclusions and bad decisions based on biases and emotions. Kahneman says intuitive leaders too often rely on insufficient data, or WYSIATI (“what you see is all there is”). Focusing on limited available evidence can mean ignoring important but absent information.

As a coach, I tell my clients (intuitive or not) who are facing decisions to first stop and gather the proper perspective on any given situation. 

One highly beneficial aspect of the StratOp strategic planning process that I facilitate is our emphasis on gathering this perspective. Tom Paterson, the creator of StratOp, taught us that perspective is seeing things without distortion: correctly reading the signals of what is unfolding. It’s the result of finding and squarely facing the truth and current realities before making a decision.

This is the step that intuitive leaders all too often skip! 

During Paterson’s work in Asia, he observed that the Eastern approach to problem solving often creates more thoughtful solutions. Their circuitous thinking produces a multi-dimensional answer. Our typical “Western-minded” approach to problem solving is a direct frontal assault (shooting from the hip) motivated by desire for a speedy solution. This method creates shorter lead times, but tends to produce one-dimensional answers to multi-dimensional problems. The risk is in not seeing all sides of the problem.

The Eastern approach (known as the Chinese Spiral) espoused by Paterson is a balanced perspective pursued by circling the potential solution via situation analysis and diagnostics. It provides a 360-degree view of the problem and solutions. I don’t have space to fully explain it here; please check my post, “What’s YOUR Perspective?” 

Bottom line? Better upfront planning means less work (and fewer blunders to fix) later on. Recognize that your intuition can be fallible. If time permits, allow ideas to settle. 

3. The Danger of Feelings Over Facts

“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” That idiom could be used to poke fun at the current climate of fake news. But it could also serve as a warning to intuitive business leaders who ignore inconvenient truths.

Admit it. Most of us admire bold leaders who think fast under pressure—sports coaches, stockbrokers, military commanders, etc. From fighter pilots to entrepreneurs, folks who routinely trust their gut are seen as role models.

But there is a risk built into following one’s hunches.

Unfortunately, our emotions—the feeling side of intuition—can cause us to disregard the facts in a situation. I learned this years ago when I was first building my consulting firm. My older and wiser colleagues told me the best way to promote our business was to tell potential clients exactly how to implement the service that we provided. 

My intuition screamed at me that giving away our secret sauce was a recipe for disaster. My intuition said prospects would take our intellectual property and implement it themselves without paying for our help. However, against my hunch, I went along with my colleagues’ advice, and I was proven wrong. 

Turns out I had ignored one undeniable fact: it doesn’t matter what people know; it matters what they do with what they know. Even though we openly shared the nuts and bolts of our process, potential clients didn’t know how to execute it without us.

This is often where even the best leaders can get stuck. They tend to put too much trust in feelings, and not counter those feelings with the hard, cold facts. 

For some, the ability to face facts is a matter of life and death: Held captive for eight years, Admiral James Stockdale was the highest-ranking American POW in Vietnam. He is credited with helping his fellow prisoners survive the infamous Hanoi Hilton by implementing what’s now known as the “Stockdale Paradox.” 

After meeting with Stockdale, author Jim Collins shared the concept in Good to Great. Here’s his summation: You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties (optimism). But at the same time, you must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be (realism). 

4. The Danger of Assuming Alignment

The hubris of an intuitive leader can cause them to assume an alignment between themselves and their team members that doesn’t exist. 

As we said earlier, intuits are often so convinced that they have the best solution, they grow impatient with mere mortals. This sky-high level of self-assurance means they usually don’t solicit input from their teams. Failing to routinely involve your staff in key decisions inevitably creates alienation and dissatisfaction. Maybe even a coup. 

On the flipside, proactively involving a team in decision-making encourages them to support the solution, regardless of its origin. Granted, an effective leader may already know the road they’ll ultimately go down. However, if they’re wise, they’ll invite their team to “plan the trip.” Inclusion fosters a healthier culture.

Take your intuitive idea to your team and sincerely invite them to interact with it. Even though it’s tempting not to collaborate, receive their advice with an open mind. Because intuition is not rational or sequential, it may be tough to explain your hunches. But effective leaders know their team must buy into an idea in order to own it and execute it.  

Smart leaders know they aren’t the only ones with insightful hunches. So create space for your team to contribute their own input and instincts. Collaboration makes a world of difference in building unity, self-esteem, and enthusiasm. As a bonus, soliciting fresh ideas just might provide the perspective your organization needs.

Take a Hunch to Lunch

Intuition is a powerful tool. It can be instrumental to your success as a leader. But I’ve heard too many horror stories about CEOs who failed when they relied too heavily on their gut feelings, ignored data to the contrary, or neglected their teams. Emotions and prejudice can cloud anyone’s thinking. 

Instead of ramming your ideas through, take your team to lunch and have an open discussion. The difference between building a team and wrecking one can hinge on a leader’s ability to involve and empower each member. Without it, your team will struggle to support even the most brilliant intuitive decisions you come up with.  

If that’s you, step back, slow down, and solicit other options. Getting the facts and the counsel of others is priceless. Ask yourself:

  • How often do I rely on hunches to make key decisions?
        (Never, Occasionally, Almost always)
  • How would I rate the effectiveness of my intuitive abilities?
        (Poor, Average, Very successful)
  • What are possible blind spots of over-relying on my intuition?
  • How can I get my teams more involved in decision making?