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Leaders Follow Their Instinct

Leaders Follow Their Instinct – Mary T. O’Sullivan

June 28, 2021/Mary OSullivan


By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL


“Leaders need to have good instincts. They learn to trust their gut.” Anonymous


Who could forget the gutsy actions of Captain Chesley (Sully) Sullenberg on January 15, 2009, when a bird strike forced him to land his 737 in the middle of the Hudson River? All 155 people aboard survived, and Sullenberger himself was the last one off the plane. In those precious minutes before his plane hit the water, the Captain had decisions to make. Would he return to the airport or find another one nearby? His thought process went into high gear. He relied on his gut instinct and skill to make the decision that the safest and quickest way to get out of the air with two dead engines was to land in the frigid river directly below him. With that quick decision-making ability, he managed to save all those lives as his plane floated helplessly in the icy January waters.


Can you imagine what could have happened if Captain Sullenberg couldn’t make a decision? What could have happened if he became paralyzed thinking of too many choices? One hundred and fifty-five souls survived because of Captain Sullenberg’s resolution, level-headedness, and grit.


But you don’t have to be a highly skilled airline pilot to be decisive. You just have to learn to trust your instinct and follow your gut.


You may never be a hero, but you can save yourself time and alleviate the frustration of those around you if you break loose of mistaken belief that all the calculous has to work out perfectly. This mindset throws people into a cycle of overthinking, and lack of action.


How can you tell if you are an overthinker?


Do you try to work out every possibility in your mind, proposing endless “what if” scenarios? Do you get a feeling that something’s missing in your “if, then, therefore” logic? Do you sweat every last detail of a decision, from how many towels to bring to the beach, to gaining the courage to apply for a promotion?


If this sounds like you, you have what is known as “analysis paralysis.” That means that you spend so much time imaging what might be a potential outcome in endless possible scenarios. It means you never take that first step and nothing you thought of in your analysis, none of your scenarios, ever play out in reality, because you’re so busy thinking about them there isn’t time for them to come to fruition.


It’s common knowledge that hemming and hawing makes us feel and appear ineffective. Leadership development programs for years emphasized that when you finally achieve that leadership position, you need to appear strong and decisive, resolute, and demonstrate some grit.  In fact, some weak leaders trick themselves into thinking they are protecting themselves by doing nothing. Or, to distract from a problematic issue, to keep people’s attention away from an embarrassing question, like why there’s a new VP ensconced every six months. These leaders make the conscious decision to do nothing because they don’t have the backbone to make anything happen and worry endlessly about every decision that comes their way. If you’ve had a boss like that, you know the frustration of waiting for her decision to materialize on funding for a new project or reviewing upcoming promotions, including yours.


Teddy Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.”  You wouldn’t want to be derided for all of history for not stepping up where action is called for. Janus, the Roman god with two faces, one side facing front and the other facing back symbolizes the struggle between making a decision or not. A side has to be chosen, a side picked, a decision made.


Throughout history, indecisiveness has brought calamity and misfortune upon nations. Neville Chamberlain’s indecisiveness after his failure to “appease” the Nazis caused the UK to plunge into war. Chamberlain was considered a failure because the Nazis broke their word. Soon after the “appeasement” meeting, the Nazis savaged Poland. That success, encouraged them to then invade most of the rest of Europe.


During the US Civil War, General George B. McClellan was ordered to take aggressive military action against the South, but his overly cautious nature led to his demise. He overestimated the size of his opponent’s forces and did not follow logic or President Lincoln’s orders. His hesitancy to attack led to his removal from command. (The National Interest, Commanders of Chaos: The 5 Worst Generals in U.S. History, November 8, 2014)


Neither one of these figures could muster up the confidence and instinct it takes to make good decisions. It leaves history to wonder, what were they thinking? Let’s explore what happens when your swirling mind blocks out your gift of intuition, or instinct. One idea piles up on top of another, thus avoiding making the tough call (the right call, as Roosevelt said). You don’t know which choice to make and you don’t want to make a mistake or let anyone down.  


When a colleague asks about a making a new hire, you say you’ll get back to them; then you fret that you can’t find the right fit for that important slot. You review again the many resumes piled up on your desk, you see so many great potentials, it’s too hard to choose. You consult your HR recruiter again, and she has two strong recommendations., You thank her, take her recommendations, and stare out your picture window. Your phone rings and you see it’s the headhunter you hired, you let the call go to voice mail. You wish the last person in that position had never left – he got a better offer while waiting for you to counter-offer, but you just couldn’t make up your mind. Now it’s lunch time and you close your shades and jump on your exercise bike. Maybe you’ll get some ideas after some exercise, during your private shower.


Now you can easily see how the indecisive CEO’s desk becomes the swirling cyclonic edge of a great black hole. This is where time passes far slower than anywhere else in the universe. The CEO’s desk is the “singularity,” the sucking point of time and space. (According to NASA, a black hole’s gravity is so powerful that it is able to pull in nearby material and “eat” it.)


Think of yourself as this CEO: What if you stepped back, gave yourself a break, and just let your mind rest? Maybe another voice within you could be heard, a feeling could overcome you; if you listen, maybe you’ll hear the sound of your gut instinct telling you to act.


For the late Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, following instincts was as important as his quarterly reviews. He expected his leaders to take “scanty data” and make sense out of it. He also expected people to do their research, and not make snap decisions. Welch realized that developing the confidence to go with gut instinct can take years to mature. He expected his leaders to take “intelligent” risks. In fact, Jack Welch rewarded risk taking. To encourage innovative thinking, he firmly believed that intelligent risk taking should not be punished. In fact, when one of his teams was tasked with creating an energy efficient light bulb, they succeeded, however, the light bulb’s price was over $10.00. because their current manufacturing methods were too expensive. Welch’s comment? “We were ahead of our time.” All 120 of his team members were rewarded with cash, trips and more.


We all have the ability to use our gut when making decisions, we just let our “monkey mind” get in the way. Monkey mind is not a made-up term.  It is, in reality, a term from Buddhism meaning “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable.”   


To be effective, we have to mentally sort through the available data and make educated guesses, especially under pressure. As Welch recognized, it takes time to develop “street smarts,” it’s not exactly an overnight process.


You’ll notice that in war conditions, soldiers are able to sense when something isn’t going right and predict enemy movements. After several months or years in battle, instinct kicks in and can save lives. There is no time for over thinking in combat. Similarly, police are well known for following their instincts, they get a feeling about a suspect, witness or case. More times than not, hunches turn out to be facts. If you’ve been working in organizations for a number of years, you see CEOs, VPs, and others come and go. You become highly educated in the politics needed to survive and how to position yourself to avoid landmines. You develop a savviness, a sixth sense, you can tell how long someone will last or what the next steps in the organization will be. You’ll even learn what battles to pick and when you need to use “hand to hand combat.”


For instance, let’s take Sarah, an executive director at a major university. Sarah was facing a crossroads in her career. She had many ideas about her future but could not decide on just one. She discussed numerous scenarios; moving thousands of miles away, applying for local opportunities, maybe changing careers completely, and many other “what ifs.” Each conversation surrounded some new venture that interested her, and there were so many, it was hard to keep track. All involved some level of risk taking. Her indecision was causing tension on her job, she hesitated to make important connections, and dithered rather than acted to bring her closer to a goal, any goal.


The constant spinning in her mind distracted her from her everyday duties, including staffing, preparation for the coming semester’s work, and important departmental decisions. She was distracted at home as well. Her domestic life became strained, as she changed her mind daily about the family’s future; would they move, sell the house, where could the husband find work, would they homeschool the kids? The anxiety she was creating both at work and home was affecting her marriage as well. Her husband became more apprehensive about her lack of decision making and concerned about when she would definitively settle on something, anything.


Finally, after several months of almost maddening vacillation, she came to some conclusions. She decided that she and her husband did not want to move. Then she decided, surprisingly, that she did not want to stay in an academic setting. By chance, she stumbled upon a private sector job very similar to the one she held at the university.


How did Sarah become so sure about her need to make a big move, to seek an alternative plan? After a lot of thinking, she decided to sit with herself in a quiet setting over a long vacation and focus on her gut. She stopped the monkey mind, and in her quiet time, away from distractions, she listened to her inner self.  Her instinct told her what she didn’t want to hear all along, and finally helped her decide what she truly wanted to do.


All leaders don’t have the luxury of vacillating for weeks at a time, like Sarah, but after avoiding her truth for many months, this leader finally learned how to follow her gut. And once this skill was learned and practiced, all her decisions fell into place.


The consequences of leaders who couldn’t make decisions and didn’t follow their gut are all around us. Think about the lasting reputation of some former leaders who vacillated. The problem often was not that they were weak, but that they were indecisive and did not believe or follow their instincts. In Japan in 2010, a very popular and handsome Prime Minister swept into power on big promises that he eventually couldn’t deliver. He was known to have “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.” But over time, he couldn’t live up to his initial promises, and he quickly fell out of favor. His “flip-flop” on very important decisions facing the country, rendered him ineffective. His continued reversal of some of his earlier decisions was perceived by all as indecisive. Elected in September of 2009, by June of 2010, he was out. But maybe this indecisiveness was not entirely his fault. The Japanese culture was once a feudal society, where collectivism was a social norm. Decisions weren’t made quickly and depended on the approval of the leader. Apparently, the new Prime Minister experienced cultural barriers to performing his duties as a leader. His own inability to make a decision was based in acting in a subordinate’s role. Therefore, the root of his failed tenure as Prime Minister grew from old cultural norms and beliefs. He didn’t make room in his repertoire of gifts for using his gut instincts to run the country. What would his political career have looked like if he trusted himself, stepped up and took power as expected?


Bill Walsh, who coached the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowls articulates his leadership philosophy as “committing to a plan of attack, executing it, and then instinctively reacting to the results.” It’s a philosophy that applies not just to NFL coaches, but also to startup founders, managers, and team leaders.


It’s a philosophy that can help you, as an individual, succeed in decision making when confronted with the daily choices that we are all challenged to make.


Breaking an old business model is always going to require leaders to follow their instincts…But if you only do what worked in the past, you will wake up one day and find that you’ve been passed by.” – Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School Professor


Excerpt taken from: The Leader You Don’t Want to Be: Transform Your Leadership Style from “Command and Control” to Transformative Visionary. By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL


Available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads and Google Books and at www.VisionaryLeaderBook.com


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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

Buy My Book– coming soon

“The Field Guide” to The Leader You Don’t Want to Be




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