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Intuitive intelligence in leadership pt1

10th Jun 2013
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Brian Bacon, chairman and founder of Oxford Leadership Academy, discusses how to develop the intuitive intelligence of leaders and why it is a critical factor in leadership development.

Do you trust your gut when it comes to the big stuff? Instincts and ‘hunches’ may have a comforting influence on day-to-day decisions, but when it comes to major strategic choices and matters of great complexity, intuition doesn’t often get a seat in the C-Suite.

Leaders are more likely to rely on hard evidence and data, logic and rational analysis to support their biggest and most important decisions. However, recent insights and discoveries in the field of neuroscience have given new importance and credibility to the role of intuition in leadership, especially when it comes to decision-making.

Can you think of an occasion where you’ve had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right about a significant business issue but didn’t listen to your intuition and later regretted it? Do you often doubt your intuition in favour of hard evidence to support your business decision? If so, you may be under-utilising one of the most powerful leadership tools - your intuitive intelligence.

We use our instinct and intuition in many facets of our lives. It may be one thing to do so in your personal life but perhaps quite another to use it at work.

Many people may feel that intuition has little or no place in business, that decisions should be based on empirical evidence rather than on trusting your gut feeling. But there is increasing evidence that intuition is more than merely a feeling. Many scientists now believe that it is, in fact, the result of our brains piecing together information and experiences to come to different, and less obvious solutions and conclusions. Publications, such as ‘Intelligent Memory: Improve the Memory That Makes You Smarter,’ by neuroscientist Barry Gordon, show that decision-making and intuition are inextricably linked.

Leadership experts and those working in organisational development give a lot of credence to IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence) but in fact ‘intuitive intelligence’ is perhaps the greatest weapon for business decision making. Some people think that if they’re not creative they don’t have much propensity for intuitive thinking. They assume that intuition, like creative thinking, is a right brain function, however whereas many skills and capabilities are relegated to the ‘left’ or ‘right’ brain, intuition is a ‘whole’ brain function.

I’ve spent much of my career working with some of the world’s largest corporations, and some of the best managers and strategists used their intuition first before looking to back it up with facts; almost as if the intuitive approach was the starting point and the measurement came afterwards. Intuition needs to be trained. It's a learned skill, and the more you use it, the more reliable it becomes.

The Oxford Dictionaries define intuition as 'the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning.' We sometimes think of it as something magical, quixotic, somewhat unreliable because, often, what passes for intuition often can’t be trusted. Freud introduced us to the idea that what we think we know about ourselves may have nothing to do with what is actually going on in our psyches. More than a century of research clearly demonstrates that some of our behaviour is directed by unconscious wishes or beliefs that are the exact opposite of what we think we want or believe to be true. Recent neuroscience research has added to this the sense that we can't always trust our thoughts or feelings to tell us what is going on inside of us. But, with intuitive intelligence we can know. Imagine you're at a noisy party, trying to make yourself heard amidst the din of the crowd. Suddenly, someone speaks your name – and you snap to the voice instantly, loud and clear. Psychologists call this the 'cocktail party effect'. It shows that we hear as 'loudest' the thing we deem most important. 

What goes for cocktail parties also goes for the voices in our heads. Somewhere in there, among the worries, doubts, questions, advice, and roar of the crowd, lives your intuition - your inner voice. You can hear it to the extent that you have honed your intuitive intelligence well enough to give it your undivided attention – and know yourself well enough to distinguish valid intuition from wishful thinking, ego or unwarranted attachment to an idea.

Intuitive intelligence can be trained. We can learn to use intuition in trustworthy ways to address issues large and small – to create opportunities, develop a plan, solve pressing problems, open up new possibilities, resolve a dilemma, etc.

Those who are training to sharpen their cognitive sensors are encouraged to use their intuitive senses when they are making decisions. This is especially beneficial when you are taking some tough decisions which have far-reaching implications in your work life.

Your intuition can reveal some aspects of your situation which your ability to reason cannot. In fact, your internal radar works perfectly. It is the operator who is in question. There are things your gut knows long before your intellect catches on. Every day, all day, an intelligent agent is sending you messages. The best leaders have learned not only to just trust their instincts but to obey them. Obeying your instincts requires that you listen to your own internal voice, acknowledge your internal reference point, rather than rush to embrace the myriad references and voices of others. Your instincts are readily available 24/7.

Your mind is continually in overdrive. You spend a lot of time in an internal dialogue – in other words, you’re busy having a conversation with yourself. If you were to speak out loud the dialogue that goes on inside your head, you would be labeled, well...a bit crazy. And often the self-talk is negative rather than positive and constructive. You can change that.

The basis for ‘intuition intelligence’ is a powerful new science of the mind known as ‘Intelligent Memory’ – a convergence of insights from behavioural psychology, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and molecular biology.

Brian Bacon is chairman and founder of the Oxford Leadership Academy, a UK-based international leadership consultancy with 200,000 alumni, 215 people and offices throughout Europe, USA, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

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