Intuitive Leadership: Drawing from the well of unconscious intelligence

Intuition vs reasoning

Intuition is the supra-logic that cuts out all the routine processes of thought and leaps straight from the problem to the answer. – Robert Graves

Trust your hunches. They’re usually based on facts filed away just below the conscious level. – Joyce Brothers

Much of the published commentary on leadership in recent decades has wrestled with the contentious concept of intuition. Theories and perspectives abound. Most commentators agree, however, that in an age of information overload, the best leaders draw from a deep well of unconscious intelligence at least as much as they rely on conscious, rational, evidence-based decision making.

The Oxford Dictionary defines intuition as the “ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning.” But intuition and instinct aren’t the same thing. Intuition is unconscious information processing that is too complex for rational thought. Importantly, this information is not innate, but learned, and often hard-won from experience. Instinct, on the other hand, is innate, a hardwired biological tendency toward a particular behaviour.

Some of the popular literature on intuition is framed – and ultimately compromised – by a vague kind of new age mysticism typified by inner angels and guiding spirits. For this reason, many business leaders are reluctant to describe their decision making as “intuitive”. More credible is the language of science (including popular science) where terms such as “adaptive unconscious” or “recognition-primed decisions” are preferred.

One key example of a popular science lens being focussed on the question of intuition is Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005). Drawing on research from psychology and behavioural economics, Gladwell promotes the concept of “thin-slicing” to describe mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information. This idea suggests that spontaneous decisions are often as good – or even better – than carefully planned and considered ones.

Gladwell references Daniel Wagner’s work on the “adaptive unconscious”, a term for mental processes that affect judgement and decision making, but which are out of reach of the conscious mind. These processes – unconscious, unintentional, uncontrollable and efficient – function as a quick sizing up of the environment by interpreting information and deciding how to act quickly.

In this way, the “adaptive unconscious” is akin to Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s concept of “System 1” thinking, described in his groundbreaking work Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). According to Kahneman, feeling is actually a form of fast thinking, and “intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition”. Kahneman coined the term “System 1” to describe “the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach”, while “System 2 is the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates”. Critically, Kahneman argues, System 1 is more influential, guiding and steering System 2 to a very large extent.

Despite their uses, the adaptive unconscious and System 1 are not substitutes for critical thinking, and won’t always result in accurate or correct decisions. Both are inclined, for example, to stereotyping and schema which can lead to bias and inaccuracy in decision making.

And while these concepts tell us something about intuition – where it comes from and how it works – there is much more to the story. For intuition, ultimately, is not so much a form of fast thinking, but rather, of deep thinking. It “operates in our body and nervous system on levels that range from basic, binary, survival-based communications to complete conversations that are elegant, sophisticated, and evolved” (Wright, 2014).

For leaders working in so-called VUCA environments, the “correct decision” is often elusive, or fraught with downsides. Complementing the more conscious, deliberative, data-based modes of problem-solving, intuition is a uniquely valuable source of knowing, a deep well of unconscious intelligence from which astute leaders can also draw.

As Shelley Rowe states in Forbes, it is this “combination of cognition and intuition that is important”.

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