Leaders Should be Detectives, Not Psychics

The danger of relying on intuition.

Posted Sep 27, 2019

Earlier this year, Business Week profiled Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, a company with annual revenues of $13 billion.  Benioff, who describes himself as being “quite spiritual,” is known for operating on spur-of-the-moment instincts rather than strategy or lengthy analyses. “I’m somebody who can see things that other people can’t see,” Benioff says in the article. 

Photo by Mark de Jong on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Mark de Jong on Unsplash

Is there a role for otherworldly abilities in becoming and succeeding as a leader?  In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, author John C. Maxwell writes that “leadership is really more art than science.”  Maxwell’s Law of Intuition holds that successful leaders have a “natural ability” to read situations and make the right decisions.  Along the same lines, Warren Bennis’ On Becoming a Leader argues for leaders using the power of “the hunch, the vision that shows you in a flash the absolutely right thing to do.”  

Probably everyone has had the experience of going with a hunch and having everything turn out right.  But social and personality psychology are full of cautions about relying on intuition as a basis for important decisions.  Unless one is a remarkably clear thinker, free of self-serving beliefs, and open to exploring personal unconscious motivations, going with one’s gut is risky.

At the least, leaders need to be aware of confirmation bias, our tendency to evaluate information in terms of beliefs we already hold.  Or motivated forgetting, in which we consciously or unconsciously “forget” information that makes us feel uncomfortable.  Or belief perseverance, our tendency to cling to beliefs we prefer despite evidence to the contrary.  Or even the Adlerian lifestyle, which describes the personal way of thinking and behaving we all develop as we attempt to avoid things—including information—that could lead to anxious feelings.  

These influences on our beliefs have little to do with gut, intuition, or spiritual insights.

Rather than being psychics, leaders need to be detectives.  For any important decision, they need to gather as much as information as they can.  They need to solicit opinions from as many relevant sources as possible.  And leaders also need to be suspicious of their motivations for going in a certain direction.  In addition to considering the reasons why they should do something, they should also think about why not.

Of course, we are in no position to confirm or deny that leaders like Marc Benioff have paranormal abilities.  But for most of us, important decisions are more likely to succeed if we base them in as many facts as we can gather rather than trusting in our own often-faulty intuitive beliefs.