Are things falling apart… or falling into place?

Tales from The Transformational Leader

In this second installment of tales from The Transformational Leader we explore the role of intuition in leadership.

Last week, the CEO of an arts foundation in the USA attended the program. Her story is a great example of how important intuition is in leadership, so I’d like to share it with you.

After many years seeking funding for additional student housing, the money finally became available and the project she’d been waiting for could move forward.

To ensure the best use of funds, she organized some focus groups of key stakeholders to explore what type of accommodation they should invest in (location, style, layout etc).

During the first focus group, someone suggested that the funds would be better used to build new workshops and studios rather than student housing. The CEO’s reaction was one of frustration. Everyone had agreed for years that housing was the priority!

Feeling annoyed and unsettled, she waited to see what emerged from the other two focus groups. These discussions went as planned; exploring the best location, style and layout for the student housing.

The issue was resolved! Or so she thought…but she realized to her surprise that she didn’t feel any more confident about how to proceed. The facts from the two of the three focus groups said to progress with housing. However, her ‘gut’ told her to revisit the broader question.

Listening to her gut, she reopened the issue for wider discussion and finally the decision was taken to invest in studios and workshops instead of housing.

There are a number of themes to explore here – the importance of conflict, keeping an open mind, listening and hearing – not just looking for data to support your own view.

The theme that I want to explore here what the CEO described as her intuition - lying awake at night with an uncomfortable ‘gut feeling,being able to ‘tune in’ to it, to explore it and then act upon it.

Intuition is difficult to analyze because it defies rational explanation. Some people dismiss it as guesswork, considering it to be of little value or even dangerous - business decisions should be based on facts and tangible elements that can be measured and monitored.

Before we go into why intuition is so important in leadership, it’s worth explaining what it is.

There are many definitions of intuition, but it boils down to these two. Either, it’s some sort of cumulative experience or unarticulated learning. Or, it’s something cosmic and spiritual that we can’t explain.

For supporters of the ‘experience’ view, intuition is built up through years of being in, and reflecting on, an environment (e.g. an industry, culture or country)People can draw on years of ingrained awareness that allows them to shortcut normal analytical methods, arriving at conclusions without really understanding how or why they got there.

For others however, this is not intuition. It does not provide new insights, in fact it is more likely to reproduce old patterns of activity based on historical assumptions and knowledge.

Supporters of the more cosmic view of intuition say it’s an ability to see patterns in events and emerging realities. These patterns lead to a flash of brilliance, where some sense-making or new idea emerges in a way that cannot be rationally explained..

My hunch is that both camps are right – and that the two are interlinked. But I must admit that my favorite position in any discussion is sitting on the fence!

The latest Hult Ashridge research into leadership explores three different kinds of ‘leadership intelligence’ Ego, eco and intuition. As one of the three leadership intelligences, intuition is critical. And it can be used constructively with one or both of the other intelligences. In my story, the CEO used intuitive intelligence to surface and pay attention to the dissonance or discomfort she was experiencing. She then used eco intelligence to engage others in deeper exploration. It could also be said she used some ego intelligence to push them to revisit a decision most of them thought was ‘done and dusted’.

Using their intuition can cause leaders to be brilliantly right or horrifically wrong. We believe leaders should develop, use and trust their intuition. Not to the extent of ignoring or discounting rational data, but not being limited by it either. It can take great courage to ‘hold on’ until new insight, clarity or agreement emerges but as Albert Einstein said, “when things seem to be falling apart, they may actually be falling into place.”

Colin Williams is Professor of Practice at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School. He is the Director of The Transformational Leader program.

Hult International Business School
Hult International Business School
Ashridge Executive Education