What role does intuition play in leadership?

helicopterMany years ago, I was a few months into a new job and my manager and I were struggling to communicate. She kept bombarding me with information that made no sense to me whatsoever, and whenever I reported back on a piece of work, she’d double-check every minute detail, leaving me convinced she thought I was totally incompetent. I of course thought she was the worst kind of micro-manager and needed to trust me to get on with my work.

Fortunately, before my confidence had totally evaporated, someone introduced me to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The distinction between the Sensing and Intuition preferences in particular provided the key to turning things round.

The Sensing/Intuition dimension is all about how people take in information. Those with a Sensing preference are detail focussed; they like facts and use these to work towards a conclusion. They trust experience, look at current realities and the practical application of what’s before them. People with an Intuition preference focus more on the big picture; they look for the connections between facts to create new possibilities; they quickly pick up on potential links between things, trusting their inspiration and following hunches. Given an agenda, Sensing types will stick to it and drill down into detail, while people with an Intuition preference use it as a launch pad for exploring ideas.

As my manager and I discovered, communication between people with these different preferences can be very difficult. Those with a Sensing preference can dismiss those who prefer Intuition as vague and woolly, prone to wander off at a tangent and probably incapable of considering the realities of here and now. By contrast, those who prefer Intuition find the Sensing type’s fixation with detail, particularly when it’s unrelated to any kind of bigger picture, not only confusing but quite frankly rather dull: where’s the room for new ideas and insights?

If you’re familiar with the Helicopter model of leadership, you’ll know that balancing these two preferences is a useful skill to develop. Effective leaders have the ability to step back and look at the big picture as well as zooming in to focus on the detail. This is not something that comes naturally, but it can be developed. Too great a focus on the small stuff will come across as micro-managing, while not enough may leave people unclear about what’s expected of them.

For the Sensing types who dominate the workforce (76% of the UK population prefer Sensing over Intuition), there is one key principal worth remembering. While you will tolerate being told the big picture as long as you know that the detail you crave will follow, your colleagues with an Intuition preference will not be able to process information unless they have something to relate it to. It’s no good complaining that ‘I told you that’ if you haven’t provided a clue as to why it may have been important, or if you’ve hidden it in a mountain of other information.

Those of us with a preference for Intuition need to remember to refer explicitly to the detail we believe is clearly implied by an over-arching statement. With my manager all those years ago, I learned that I needed to provide more than general assurance saying I’d completed a project; I needed to add a list of what exactly I’d done and what factors I’d considered. Providing that level of detail was initially really hard for me, but after a few months my manager was sufficiently reassured that I could cut back considerably (still providing more than I had done at first, but far less than she had been demanding).

It could be argued that Intuitive types may be better equipped for leadership roles, while those with a Sensing preference make better managers. There would certainly appear to be a clear link between Intuition and a leader’s role in creating vision and strategic direction, while a manager’s more operational focus would seem to suit those with a Sensing preference. I feel however that this is perhaps a bit simplistic.

In analysing what made Walt Disney such a successful leader, NLP developer Robert Dilts identified something that has come to be known as the Disney Creativity Strategy. Walt Disney apparently was adept at switching between three distinct modes: dreamer, realist and critic. At various points in a project he would demonstrate behaviour typical of someone with an Intuition preference, dreaming up new ideas, linking things up to create exciting flights of fancy; at other times he behaved more like a Sensing type, very much the realist, focusing on the practicalities of what exactly needed to be done (his third mode, that of the critic who identifies what doesn’t work, is something I will look at next time). The important thing is that whatever his natural preferences, he was able to adopt atypical behaviours in order to provide the kind of leadership that was needed in the moment.

Looking back at my relationship with my manager all those years ago, I would probably still label her a micro-manager; I would also admit that I sometimes allowed my preference for the big picture to justify a slightly cavalier attitude towards detail. Understanding the needs of each other (or at least me understanding my manager’s needs) provided a way out of what could have become an intolerable situation.

This is the second in a series of four related articles looking at leadership in terms of the dimensions of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  It first appeared in TrainingZone.

The other articles in this series

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