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Intuition And Leadership - How To Lead With Your Gut


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"Organizations that rely on facts rather than intuition can outperform the competition"(1), says Professor Bob Sutton of Stanford University. Now I have a lot of time for the thinking of Bob Sutton, but the problem with this particular thinking is that intuition and facts are not mutually exclusive. Here are two examples of the power of intuition as an expression of tacit knowledge - things you know in your bones but can't always put into words.

The first is from Malcolm Gladwell:

"My father will sit down and give you theories to explain why he does this or that, " the son of the billionaire investor George Soros has said. “But I remember seeing it as a kid and thinking, ‘At least half of this is bull. ’ I mean, you know the reason he changes his position on the market or whatever? It is because his back starts killing him. He literally goes into spasm and it's this early warning sign. "(2)


Instinct and intuition should not be lumped in with narrowness of thinking and selective use of evidence. Often intuition draws not on hopes, fears and prejudice, but on the kind of deep knowledge that it is difficult or impossible to articulate and evidence in a report because it is implicit. Intuition grows from ploughed-in knowledge.

Here's more, er, evidence in favour of intuition. It's a story the economist Kjell Nordstrom told me:

"My father's a fisherman. He has been all his life. Occasionally he takes me out fishing in his boat. After a while, I'll say ‘This looks like a good spot. Let's stop here and fish. ’ My father will just smile and say ‘Not today. Today the fish are over there', and point a mile or two to the west. ’ And he is nearly always right. I have given up asking how he knows. He looks at the sky. He feels the wind. He watches the waves and senses the currents. He just knows where the fish are. "

Facts and intuition are false opposites. Leaders should listen to their intuition and instincts and allow others to do the same because they are sub-conscious, fast ways of processing, aggregating and then accessing evidence to reach a swift conclusion. Trust your gut. And make it clear to your people that you trust them to use theirs.

But balance in all things. Leaders need more of both - a clear-eyed focus on the relevant facts and evidence, rather than evidence that promotes a particular agenda or perspective, PLUS more reliance on individual and collective instinct.


Thin slicing: Malcolm Gladwell (2) says we make snap decisions all the time, apparently based on tiny slivers of information. It's called thin-slicing. He gives the example of a woman at a speed dating event who says of one failed encounter, “He lost me at ‘Hello’. " These fast decisions are often better than the outcomes of long, deliberative reasoning processes. But, they can also be wrong.


(1) Hard Facts, Dangerous Half Truths and Total Nonsense
Bob Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer. Partly-inspired by the growth in recent years of the Evidence-Based Medicine movement in healthcare, Sutton and Pfeffer argue that the approach should be carried over into how organizations are run. Up to a point, gentlemen.

(2) Blink: The power of thinking without thinking
Malcolm Gladwell. Intuition and instinct are by no means always right. But, they are powerful tools in your decision-making, explains Gladwell.


Article copyright (c) Phil Dourado

This short article is adapted from The 60 Second Leader: everything you need to know about leadership, in 60 second bites. © Phil Dourado. Published by Capstone, April 2007 (UK) and June 2007 (US). Available on or




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