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Intuition as leadership tool – it’s like having the world wide web in your head

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Ever made a business decision that just ‘felt right’? You had no facts to point you in that direction, no intercepted memo from the competition. You just knew it was the right way to go at the time? And it worked! You cornered a part of the market, cemented a strategic partnership just in time to land a large contract, or walked away from a deal that looked good, but – as it transpired – would have sunk your business, based on a ‘bad feeling’ about it. Was this a sixth sense, ESP, luck? Or your intuition at work? It turns out that following our gut or trusting our intuition is a lot less risky or reckless than we think. 

Neuroscience is helping us understand what’s behind a leader’s sense of knowing, or our intuition. Our brains are at work all the time – storing data, finding connections, synthesising and processing information – building a reliable framework from which to make decisions. Let’s explore this in a bit more detail.

The science behind our sense of knowing

The brain is astounding. The more we learn about it, the more capacity there seems to be. The neuroscientist Sebastian Seung (in Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are) estimates that 1 cubic millimeter of brain tissue could contain the equivalent in data of a digital photo album containing one billion images. And a recent study by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, published in ScienceDaily, found that a conservative estimate puts individual memory capacity in petabyte territory, i.e. the same ballpark as the World Wide Web! 

But as impressive as the brain’s storage capacity is, so is its processing ability – it is estimated that the brain performs over five trillion operations each second – much of this happening outside of conscious thought. Scientists have shown that the unconscious mind operates at 40 million bits of data per second, whereas the conscious mind processes at a maximum of only 150 bits per second – some say as low as 40. And 95% of our decisions, actions, emotions and behaviours are derived from the unobserved processing of the subconscious mind, says cellular biologist Bruce Lipton.

A world-class filing system in action

But capacity without accessible content wouldn’t mean much – it would be a bit like saying, “I have the best available laptop with a 5 terabyte hard drive and a state of the art i7 processor”, but it’s empty.

So, what is it that we have access to in our petabyte-capacity brains? Current thinking is that the brain has a very elaborate warehousing filing system that right from birth begins taking things in, dissecting our experiences, observations, etc. and filing different bits in separate folders – let’s call it analysis. When new information comes in, there is further analysis, and new folders are created and filled, while other information is added to existing folders. In short, a very elaborate database is created and continually and accurately updated. 

Gut feel or exceptional synthesis? 

But the brain does not only dissect and file. When new information arrives or a question is posed, our brain performs a search to see how this might fit with other information (such as learning, experiences, events, knowledge, etc.) already stored. When it finds a match, the previous memories come off the shelf and combine with the new, and the result is a thought – let’s call the process synthesis. Sometimes the subconscious brain makes connections between multiple different pieces of old stored data, in surprising ways. When lots of different, perhaps seemingly unconnected pieces combine into a new, sometimes surprising pattern, you experience it as a flash of insight, or the famous ‘aha!’ moment. This happens unconsciously and at lightning speed. Behavioural neurologist and cognitive neuroscientist Barry Gordon (in his book Intelligent Memory: Exercise Your Mind and Make Yourself Smarter) calls this process – which is the basis for producing creative, breakthrough ideas – intelligent memory.

Because this often happens so fast and we don’t consciously follow the brain’s ‘logical’ thinking sequence, we often struggle to describe this output. Some people say they have “a gut feel”; “a sense of ...”; “a knowing”; or “intuition”. In Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (2013), Daniel Goleman and co-authors explain that the dissected learning that the brain accesses at such lightning speed often lies in deep zones of the brain that are outside of the reach of words. We feel it emotionally, but we literally don’t have the words to give a logical explanation for our own thoughts, so we might call it intuition.

When intuitive decisions really count 

Gary Klein is a psychologist who has done research among those who work in professions where crisis decisions are needed on a regular basis, such as neonatal-care nurses and firefighters, who often have to make gut or intuitive decisions and get it right. Some of the interesting things Klein found about these professions – and shared with FastCompany – include:
  • At the core lies the building up of lots of knowledge and experience in their area of expertise, which, at the point of decision, doesn’t bog them down, but makes them fast.
  • When the crisis happens, they go quiet and observe, observe, observe – feeding the brain with what they see, while the subconscious brain is busy with the analysis and synthesis process.
  • Once a first-level gut decision is made, and if there is time, they then test it by imagining how things may unfold and ultimately play out – a sort of scenario planning.
  • In emergency situations, when time is not available, they often simply follow their intuition or gut. Klein gives many examples of the accuracy of such crisis intuition decisions (in the absence of objective facts) that even surprised the individuals who made them.  

Trusting our gut seems a lot less risky in the light of our subconscious brain’s processing power. Remember the enormity of subconscious to conscious processing capacity ratio? This means that our subconscious, in any given situation, observes a multitude of things that we are not consciously aware of, yet these have an impact our actions, emotions and decision making.

Maximising the leader’s intuition

Almost despite ourselves, our brains are hard at work on our behalf setting the stage for an aha moment, a gut sense … building our intuition. But what are some of the things we can do to optimise our intuition? How can we make the most of this as a tool in our leadership toolbox? Here are a couple of suggestions:
  • Learn to listen to the quiet voice inside. Be open to what it brings. Or, put differently, we could say, develop mindfulness.
  • Learn to respect the “I feel” contributions from others as much as the “I think” ones.
  • Tap into the knowledge and experience that comes with others’ diversity, e.g. experience, training, personality type, age, generation group, race, tribe, language, culture and gender. There’s power in pooling the insights that stem from the brain connections of those who have filed, analysed and synthesised different experiences to your own.
  • Immerse yourself in new learning. Patrick Schwerdtfeger, speaking at TedX Sacramento in 2012, called intuition the combination of experience and expertise, and said that the quickest way to achieve this is through immersing ourselves in new learning, which gives our subconscious minds the opportunity to see and experience all the variables which allow for quicker learning. 
  • Adopt the boardroom version of observe, observe, observe … and listen, listen, listen. ​




Danie Eksteen is a faculty member at USB-ED. As founder of Strategic Human Capital Consulting, he works with leaders and teams to help them do their best work.





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