The most elusive and desired quality of leadership is vision. Vision is the perfume of the mind. Unfortunately, leadership gurus tend to approach their understanding of vision with a reductive method. For them, it's about scenarios, or positive thinking, or guesswork based on information. But none of those formulas can explain the fact that some people seem able to see the future. After all, don't we all know undeserving, stupid people who have made a brilliant career out of stepping in a pile of luck? Did they see it in front of them? Could they have walked that way on purpose?
I got a peek at the awe-inspiring, mysterious side of vision, and it left me with a case of the chills in the warmth of summer. In the heart of Silicon Valley, I met a man who is a scientist of intuition. But Dean Radin, 48, prefers the term "precognition" -- that is, knowing the future before it happens. He has started the Boundary Institute, a nonprofit outfit that does basic scientific research on "information transfers." Radin's partner is Ed May, 60, former director of a CIA program code-named Stargate. The program investigated remote viewing -- in other words, the ability, without the use of the ordinary senses, to gain information about objects or events from a location that is distant in either time or space.
Indeed, the subject of Radin's research invites a kind of X-Files conversation. Precognition falls under the category of psychic phenomena, which is a subset of the paranormal. Precognitive experiences transcend the boundaries of space and time. They can involve the transfer of information between people (which is sometimes called "mind reading" or "telepathy") , or they can involve the perception of something from a spatial or temporal distance.
"Psychokinesis," says Radin, "involves information travelling from people's intention back into the environment. Movies usually represent this in the form of large-scale mind-over-matter effects, such as levitation. We don't see such dramatic events in the real world, at least not under controlled conditions, though we do see changes in the distribution of random events. In an experiment, it comes down to watching a roll of a die and trying to influence the outcome mentally. You do this over and over again, and the link with mental intention is seen not in what a single die does but in the distribution of results after many trials."
Most of us have some amount of intuition, which can be defined as "knowing something without knowing how we know it," or "knowing something and forgetting that we knew it." For instance, people can have so many years of experience in a given field that they forget what they know about it. A patient walks into a doctor's office and the doctor gets an intuitive feeling that this patient has a certain disease. Even when his medical examination bears out this hunch, the doctor will likely have no idea how he got the hunch in the first place. His expertise seems mysteriously reflexive.
Radin argues that, as impressive as that sort of intuition is, there exists an even higher variety: "A large part of intuition consists of knowledge, skills, and experience that you do not consciously remember. But there may be another part. Having a genuine psychic experience is like having an intuitive hunch, except that you get information that you didn't previously have, either consciously or unconsciously. That information comes not from the 'inside' but from the 'outside.' So intuition can involve a combination of factors -- which suggests that creative acts sometimes depend not only on a person's learned skills and talents, but also on a still-mysterious ability to get information despite what common sense tells us about space and time."
Can we develop an ability to have visions? "We can give somebody a recipe of tips to improve clairvoyance," says Radin. "But will it actually improve? Most people won't improve at something if they're not suited to it. Hand a violin to a random person, and he'll probably never come near to playing like Jascha Heifetz. Can people with precognitive talent develop that talent further? There, the jury is out. We don't know."
So what's the recipe?
"An Indian sage named Patanjali got it right," says Radin. "His teachings could be boiled down to this: If you wish to be able to pay attention to things going on inside your head, you should pay attention to things going on inside your head. So how do you do that? Sit on a rock, close your eyes, quiet your mind, and pay attention. It sounds like the easiest thing in the world -- until you try to do it. Try to pay attention to what lies beyond the boundaries of ordinary awareness. We have so many bits of information that our minds are chattering about constantly. People who are talented psychically can pay attention to subtle impressions in their head."
But even in our distracting universe, seeing the future is far from impossible. "When I speak to successful businesspeople," says Radin, "they say that they rely on their intuition. They are constantly making judgments based on 'vision.' One venture capitalist told me that he could tell when he was 'on': Key people would pop into his life, for example. He could also feel when that stopped. He learned to trust this strange behavior."
What brings on such behavior? "If you pay an enormous amount of attention to the creation of a goal, you can gear every perceptual filter that you have to that goal. Because there is so much unconscious processing going on all of the time, it will feel as though you're magically getting impressions of what you intend to do."
How do intuitive hunches manifest themselves? "Say that you're coming to an intersection that you've driven through a hundred times. You slow down for reasons that you don't understand. Suddenly, a truck zooms through a red light. You've saved your life because you felt something was wrong. What if you woke up that morning and thought, 'I don't feel very good about that stretch of road'? That's a transfer of information from your future back to your present."
"So," I ask Radin, "does trusting our visions mean believing in a redefinition of time?"
"Yes," he says. "We have to give up the notion that time is an arrow that flies straight from the past to the future. A few hundred years ago, people thought that space had one absolute direction. Throw a ball, and it would fall down. Newton showed that there is no absolute direction of space; instead, there are relationships between different bodies of mass. By analogy, we are beginning to think that the arrow of time is drawn toward larger bodies of information. The second law of thermodynamics says, 'Energy tends to spread out, to diffuse, to become less concentrated in one physical location or one energetic state.' Everything is running toward greater entropy, toward greater and greater randomness.
"But a lot of things are not running toward randomness. If life were not constantly regenerating order, you'd be dead. A stream looks like it's flowing in one direction, but there are little eddies and currents that move water in different directions. If that metaphor were applied to a psychic experience, you could imagine that there are pressure waves that ripple backward through time. When people get an impression that something is wrong on the road, they may be getting information trickling backward. An event in your future may be like a boulder in a stream: It will affect the flow of water around it. The flow of information is your emotions. That future event causes your own stream of life events to change."
Radin wants to find a theoretical model for understanding such developments. If he succeeds, that opens a door to huge applications: "We could enhance doctors' ability to diagnose problems intuitively before they become manifest." He also sees a strong application in better intelligence methods. "What represents the biggest threat to national security? Small terrorist groups with weapons. There is no conventional way to track their movements. Using psychic abilities may be an unusually effective way to track them."
And Radin's work has philosophical implications. If he succeeds in scientifically proving the existence of precognitive vision, the definition of the self will change dramatically. "Classically, the self is related to the brain. It's you by yourself, alone, right here and now. What these phenomena suggest is that we need a complementary view of what the self is. Modern physics has faced the same crisis with particles and waves. We are particles in one perspective, and waves in another. And, ultimately, there is only one wave.
"It's as though life were an ocean. We think of ourselves as standing above the wave; we have our own existence. Yet we're part of the ocean; we're connected. For a short time -- a mere lifetime -- we are different. But our consciousness is the wave. From an evolutionary point of view, it makes a lot of sense for us to pay attention to the here and now. Otherwise, the predators out there will eat us. But sometimes, such as when we eat or sleep, our awareness drops to a preconscious level. We feel a part of everything, a part of the wave. This view is radically different from the Western perspective. Our whole economy is based on the notion that we are individual particles. But there are complementary ways of thinking."
Those ways lead to a new physics of the mind: "Vision and psychic phenomena don't fit in with Western views, yet the evidence proving their value is quite good. The topic is so taboo that it almost can't be talked about. Yet, at the same time, movies like The Sixth Sense and books like those in the Harry Potter series are wildly successful. One reason why this topic is taboo may be that we have an intuitive sense that if we understood this stuff better, that would redefine what human beings are and force a change in society."
J.P. Morgan is reported to have said, "Millionaires don't believe in astrology, but billionaires do." I tested Morgan's notion on a lawyer who has his own sterling business record. I thought I could fluster him deep in the heart of his three-piece suit. Instead, he leaned forward as if he'd discovered a fellow spy. "I understand that," he said. "Millionaires work hard, but billionaires become successful because they are willing to take a leap. They are willing to believe."
Radin confirms that businesspeople consult psychics on the quiet. "People who are in a position of having to make decisions under great uncertainty will at some point exhaust every piece of intelligence that they have. Naturally, they are all going to look for other sources of information."
In other words, you can no longer be sure who was born with a bent silver spoon in his mouth.
Harriet Rubin (Hrubin@aol.com) , a Fast Company contributing editor, is the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women (Doubleday, 1997) and Soloing: Achieving Your Life's Ambition (HarperCollins, 1999) . She is also director of working diva (www.ivillage.com/workingdiva) . Contact Dean Radin by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) , or visit the Boundary Institute on the Web (www.boundaryinstitute.org) .