Towards the end of the 19th century, oil barons were staking their claims all around the country. Among those petroleum pioneers were folks hoping to strike it rich by drilling wells in unproven areas. These so-called “wildcatters” risked everything based on a hunch, based on what some would call intuition.

Not a lot has changed since then. There are plenty of people in business willing to take big, unnecessary risks because of their trust in a gut feeling.

But intuition isn’t all voodoo. In fact, it’s a basic tool used by successful leaders all the time. The key is knowing what intuition truly is and how to rely on it in the right situations.

What Is Intuition?

Intuition is often cast as a natural-born ability to virtually see into the future. But that’s the fictional intuition of super detectives on TV or psychics looking into crystal balls. And those examples don’t translate into improving your skills as a leader. So, let’s be clear about intuition.

Intuition is NOT…

  • An excuse to merely shoot-from-the-hip when it comes to big decisions
  • A total guess based on a gut feeling
  • A hunch
  • A random occurrence
  • A natural ability possessed by only some people

The image of a leader with great intuition is someone who makes a split-second decision in a moment of crisis. But what this image fails to capture is everything that comes before.

Intuition happens when leaders put in the work to prepare and anticipate a multitude of situations. When the critical moment comes, they rely on that work to guide their decision-making.

“Intuition is not a gut feeling. It is a course of study.” — Tim Yeomans, Executive Vice President at FiredUp!

Intuition is informed by the sum of information from all of a leader’s experiences and resources. That might include…

  • Anecdotal evidence
  • Personal experiences
  • Insight from other team members
  • Market trends
  • Data

Possibly the most powerful tool in guiding your intuition is data. But there’s a problem. Leaders who rely on data alone are wasting the resources of their own experiences. And, leaders who don’t utilize data are ignoring insights they could likely never see on their own. The key is learning how to balance data and intuition.

How to Balance Intuition with Data

Imagine a race car driver with their foot jammed on the gas, pushing the car to its absolute limits. The instrumentation indicates the engine is overheating. The data is telling them to pull over.

But the driver knows it’s the last lap. Pulling over would guarantee a loss, so they press on and manage to win the race.

Data informs intuition, but it is not the only thing to guide your decisions. A leader must consider data as it relates to the company’s goals, values, mission, and next steps.

For example, picture a company with a commitment to improve the well-being of its employees. The data clearly shows that removing healthcare benefits would reduce costs, but that wouldn’t align with its core ethos.

In the same scenario, the company might use data to better understand the healthcare needs of its employees and customize benefit offerings so people get healthier. 

With every decision, leaders must remember to…

  • Evaluate the situation in its entirety.
  • Analyze different potential solutions informed by experiences, data, and feedback. 
  • Align their decision with core values, goals, and mission statements.

When you put in the effort to evaluate, analyze, and align, you’re creating the building blocks that allow intuition to happen. 

The Potential of Intuition

In 1997, the University of Washington opened a new, permanent satellite campus about 45 minutes south of Seattle, in Tacoma, Washington. It was an incredible opportunity for people outside of Seattle to attend the award-winning public university. 

But, the new Tacoma campus struggled to attract students. That’s when local leaders had an idea. They decided to partner with nearby high schools to provide direct educational pathways between their schools and the university. Institutions formed partnerships and the plan worked. Local students got to attend a four-year university and the new campus got the students it needed to be successful.

Sometimes, intuition doesn’t work out so well.

When engineers at Volkswagen decided to cheat emissions testing by altering software, the results were disastrous. They evaluated the data, found that their cars didn’t meet the targeted emissions criteria, and they chose a solution of modifying software to pass tests. The step they missed was aligning their actions with company values. Ultimately, it was a mistake that cost Volkswagen billions of dollars.

Intuition isn’t a silver bullet solution utilized by gifted leaders with a crystal ball. It’s the product of experience, information, and preparation. When critical moments arrive, leaders who evaluate, analyze, and align are outfitted with the resources to make the right decision quickly. 

Are you in tune with the way your culture influences your intuition as a leader? Find out how you can develop an exceptional culture. Download our free eBook: The Innovative Leader’s Guide To Transforming Company Culture… Starting With Yourself.