Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell and Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, we’ve all been sternly warned about the risks of employing intuition when making important decisions. In his book Blink, Gladwell asserts that while our unconscious thinking is “a powerful force, it also can be thrown off, distracted or disabled.” And in his classic, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman stresses that gut instincts can fail us when we unwittingly apply familiar patterns of experience to unrelated circumstances or situations.
The truth is, most of us have spent a lifetime developing our rational minds and rely solely upon their counsel when making consequential life choices. And we know that in business today, innumerable companies such as Amazon have placed data at the center of their corporate cultures—and routinely rely on metrics to find the best ways of growing their businesses.
In light of this, it may come as a surprise to learn that some of the world’s most successful leaders and innovators intentionally tap into their intuition before making critical decisions.
In his new best seller, How to Lead: Wisdom From the World’s Greatest CEOs, Founders, and Game Changers, Carlyle Group cochairman David Rubenstein says Amazon’s founder and CEO is actually a perfect example.
“Jeff Bezos is a brilliant guy who has built a great company—a data-driven company,” Rubenstein told me recently. “But most people who’ve become very successful, certainly in the business world, had an idea—an intuition—that pushed them forward. It wasn’t analysis. Like the best decision-makers, Warren Buffett makes investment decisions in minutes. And, in my opinion, if Steve Jobs had relied on analytical thinking, he never would have built Apple.”
If you’re wondering how great leaders managed to square their data-driven business mindsets with a routine reliance upon intuition, it’s because they most often tapped into a kind of intuition that transcends the instinctive, gut-based one about which Gladwell and Kahneman both had concerns. There really are three kinds of intuition. An understanding of each will profoundly enhance the success of all your future decision-making, not to mention prevent you from making choices you end up regretting.
“Expert knowledge” intuition
“Thinking fast” is where our most common understanding of intuition comes in. As Kahneman describes, it operates automatically, quickly, and sometimes impulsively. But while Kahneman asserts that gut instincts can be wrong, they can also be right when applied to familiar patterns and challenges.
For example, an experienced nurse walks into a hospital room and tells a new nurse that the patient is about to go into cardiac arrest. And within the next hour, it frequently happens. While the nurse may later be unable to explain how she “knew,” through her experience, she learned to identify subtle cues such as how a patient is breathing, their color, or some other signs she locked away in her unconscious. And when she recognizes these patterns again, she takes quick action.
“Implicit knowledge” intuition
When any of us is faced with a new problem, with no experience in solving it, our common approach is to think about it, scratch our head a little, and inevitably stop working on it. But then, while in the shower or out on a run, we experience a sudden epiphany where, voilà, we’re guided to the solution. Allowing our minds to process the problem behind the scenes often provides the answers we need.
College student Nikola Tesla was mocked by one of his professors after he proposed creating the first alternating-current-driven motor. Stumped by how to make it, Tesla and a friend went out for a walk—to discuss poetry—and the insight came to him. “The idea came like a flash of lightning,” he wrote, “and in an instant, the truth was revealed.”
Albert Einstein often stressed the value of intuition and described his own theories as “free invention of imagination” rather than the result of rigorous analysis. “There are no logical paths to these [natural] laws,” he wrote.
Even modern-day real estate brokerage tycoon and Shark Tank investor Barbara Corcoran believes she owes much of her success to trusting her inner knowing. Here’s how she described it:
“You really have to listen to that inside intuition. And it’s kind of weird, I think, for me, because everything in our education system says listen to your left brain. Everything we’re taught is listen, analyze. A leads to B, leads to C. But in real life, it doesn’t work that way. A leads often to F, and then comes back to B. And so, the only piece of your mind that’s able to grasp that, and see the truth, is your intuition.”
According to researchers at the HeartMath Institute, numerous studies have validated the existence of a form of intuition that author and medical doctor Deepak Chopra says “allows us to eavesdrop on the mind of the universe.” While our rational minds operate on the basis of our five senses, nonlocal intuition seems to access not just information stored in our subconscious but also a deep storehouse of knowledge and wisdom, perhaps best described as universal intelligence.
Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, for example, always had access to financial analysis and predictive data, but he also proved to have an instinctive feel for what products, store design, and culture he wanted his customers to experience. By his own admission, he routinely acted on his intuition and, in effect, followed his heart.
The truth is all of us have intuitive feelings like these all the time, but we’ve been conditioned to ignore or discount them. That’s because they’re an aspect of human intelligence we often don’t believe is appropriate or reliable. Nevertheless, we can all recall times when we overrode an inner voice or feeling that urged us not to take a job, trust another person, or send an email. And we can relate to Oprah Winfrey when she said, “The only times I’ve made mistakes is when I didn’t listen.”
Researchers at the Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship studied serial entrepreneurs—people who had built multiple businesses with great success—and discovered that 80% of them intentionally relied on intuition and knowingly integrated it with their cognitive capacities when weighing options. In other words, they purposely acted on hunches tied to a feeling that it was the right choice and embraced the idea that what they sensed was no less valuable than empirical data and analytics.
More than 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “Wisdom is intuitive reason combined with scientific knowledge,” a conclusion that reminds us that our minds and hearts are intended to work together. And that’s the important insight successful leaders such as these clearly understand.
When faced with an important decision, they run the numbers and perform all the critical analysis. But right before they make the final call, they ask their inner wisdom to weigh in. Most importantly, they routinely trust that whatever feeling it yields will guide them to making the best possible choice there is to make.
In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Trust instinct to the end even though you can give no reason.”
Mark Crowley is a best-selling author and a global speaker on employee engagement.