Leading From The Gut

What is it about our culture’s fascination with instinctual leaders? You know, the type of leader who place great importance on his ability to listen to his “gut instincts” when making decisions. Somehow we have linked sincerity and skill to those who are more in the moment while attaching distrust and poor judgment to those who arrive at decisions with thoroughness and caution.

The current US presidential contest could not illustrate this contrast more. The Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump, recently told Time Magazine in response to a question on NATO that he came up with his answer “off the cuff…I’m an intuitive person. I didn’t read books on NATO…” He is mercurial, reflexive and not interested in details. His leadership emanates from his desire to be in the mix of things, working with people to create in real time. The Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, has noted that she is cautious, methodical and wonky in her decision-making style. She comes prepared to every encounter.

Which style is most effective?

Both, actually. The issue is how thoroughness and intuition work in concert. Phil Owens, a corporate behaviorist, wrote last month in The CEO Magazine that intuitive leadership is best reserved for those who already have high knowledge and experience in a particular area or situation. He cites the example of a veteran fireman who rushes to evacuate a building he believes will imminently collapse, based on a subtle reading of signs that are evident to him after years of experience. Owens notes that only from experience and deep knowledge can intuition be relied on. Otherwise, “intuitive decision making…is most likely based on feelings, stories, memories and imagined or ‘favourite’ patterns – and will have no better odds than chance of leading to success.”

To relate this example to the real world of US Presidential politics, one could consider how to best manage America’s vast, interconnected network of relationships with foreign governments. Sound knowledge of history and current relationships is foundational; taking that knowledge to guide in-the-moment policy decisions is where artful leadership comes to life. While one can be executed without the other (i.e., intuitive decisions without deep knowledge) the success rate for such an approach is far from certain.

This leads me to the belief that so much of the public’s current desire to have a leader who is “authentic” and “leads from the gut” has more to do with the growing chasm between those who lead and those who are led than it does decision-making style. If skillful, intuitive decision-making is a successful blend of thoroughness and experiential intuition, then any leader who displays that capability should be seen by default as authentic and trustworthy. After all, intuition – gut instinct – is clearly part of the equation. Yet this is not consistently what we see. That’s because decision-making style is a proof point, an outward illustration of a leadership approach that either meets what a particular group considers necessary or an indication that the leader doesn’t fit what the group desires. In countries – and companies – where a leader reflects and embodies what the group or culture believes to be important the leader is given a high level of trust and legitimacy. Think Ronald Reagan. Think Steve Jobs. Think Helen Gurley Brown. Each operated in different spheres: politics, technology and publishing. Yet each embodied what their institutions saw themselves to be. And each was able to lead with notable freedom and flexibility because of the deeply entrenched trust bestowed on them by the group. (I wrote about this phenomenon in the late 1990’s and will go into greater detail in my next blog post.)

So when a group claims they want a leader who is more intuitive in decision-making, it believes that such a style represents the group’s collective approach to this aspect of leadership. The group feels more comfortable with someone who comes to conclusions as its members do, because it is a familiar style. Not necessarily a more effective style – but a familiar one.

For a leader whose style is different, this can create a sort of reckoning: Do I change how I make decisions to meet the expectations of the group? Or do I find other ways to illustrate how I understand and embrace what matters to them? I strongly lean toward the latter. Sound decision-making is a critical leadership skill and it is far better to show, over time, one’s decision-making prowess. More broadly, a leader who understands, shares and leads based on the group’s collective goals will be a leader who resonates and engenders trust. Any smart decision that supports the group’s goals will be seen positively in this light.

In truth, leading from the gut is open to a number of interpretations based on a group’s subtle definition of the term; helping a group see how you do it effectively reveals your skill in the art of leadership.

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  1. […] this month, I published a blog entitled “Leading from the Gut.” In the piece, I referenced work I had written in 1997 for my master’s thesis, a report called […]

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