So much of what we do is done by instinct. This is especially true for the things we are good at. In complex, difficult situations, we make split second decisions without thinking through each step in the reasoning process. Despite this, we have full faith that we will achieve our desired outcome. This is instinct. It is a leader’s most valuable asset – but possibly the most ignored. As we head into uncertain times, we cannot forget the necessity of leading by educated instinct.
The sports lovers among us will be well aware of the prolificacy and utility of the slow-motion replay.
It is easy to understand the appeal. After enjoying a moment of inspired play, we get to deconstruct the player’s movements to better appreciate exactly what happened. We see the stretch of every sinew. Every drop of sweat. The narrowing of the eyes. The deliberate, immaculate adjustments.
And, finally, the perfect execution.
We think to ourselves, “how on earth did they do that?” Each step seems so natural – ordained, even. As if the athletes had choreographed the play to evoke this response from the audience.
But we know the truth. They are just that good.
While it might seem unrealistic to draw a parallel between organisational leaders and sportspeople, there is a common thread uniting these distinct realms: The necessity of educated instinct. In the same way that athletes must instantaneously make the correct decision as soon as an opportunity arises, leaders are presented with a series of disruptions – small and large – that they must manage with little to no thought.
At this point, it is vital to clarify what ‘educated instinct’ means. Any good leader will attest to the fact that leading solely by one’s inclinations is fraught. The role of an executive or manager is rife with unprecedented situations; here, to unthinkingly act based on a guess or estimate would be incredibly irresponsible. Drawing on one’s educated instinct is the preferable option.
An educated instinct is one built on a foundation of training, experience and expertise. It unites our past with our present and acts as a filter through which we process our surroundings. When an executive is faced with a problem and makes a quick decision, it might appear as if they are taking a risk. In reality, their choice is the culmination of years of hard work. Once educated instinct kicks in, the right decision becomes apparent. We have faith in our gut because we know these instincts are fortified with a career’s worth of knowledge and experience.
In essence, an educated instinct is the gut feeling of a well-trained, well-resourced, well-rounded leader.
A natural consequence of this condition is described perfectly by Ian Leslie, writing for The Economist in 2012: “A fundamental paradox of human psychology is that thinking can be bad for us. When we follow our own thoughts too closely, we can lose our bearings, as our inner chatter drowns out common sense.”
I think we all know this feeling. Have you ever tried to recreate something you once did perfectly, only to never reach those same heights? You try and copy your movements or draw on the same source you did when you were successful, but the perfection never comes. Then, when you do not care anymore or are about to give up, you do it perfectly once again.
Overthinking is a leader’s enemy and not to be confused with confident, careful decision making. An experiment conducted with Yale undergraduate students is proof of this phenomenon. Rats were placed in a maze with food on their left 60% of the time and on the right 40% of the time. The rats soon worked out that the left side was more bountiful, achieving a 60% success rate. Yale undergraduates, on the other hand, tried to uncover a hidden pattern rather than continuously picking the left-hand side. As a result, their success rate was below 60%.
The takeaway for leaders is this: Trust your gut.
As this decade progresses, the disruptions our organisations face will intensify. Naturally, our leaders must make quick, correct decisions. Overthinking will stifle our progress. Instead, we must have faith in our leaders’ educated instincts.
Strengthening these instincts requires learning – both theoretical and practical. By supporting current and emerging leaders in their development, we are investing in their capacity to make better decisions sooner.
Whether you are a leader yourself or someone looking to build this skillset in others, the path is clear. Success sits within all of us. We just require the knowledge and experience to access it.