I've got a hunch about this

6th December 2013 at 00:00

In this age of data-led leadership and mechanistic performance management, intuition is not actively encouraged in school leaders.

We all think we know what we mean when we use the word - it's usually connected to gut feeling. The Americans use the term "deep smarts" to capture the complex interplay between intuition as expertise and intuition as feeling.

I love the idea of intuition being "compressed experience", whereby decision-makers are quickly able to evaluate complex situations by using expertise acquired from life. In this way, experience and learning come together to provide insight.

Yet intuition should not be placed in opposition to rational thought and objective analysis. Nor is it just random guesswork.

Intuitive decision-making happens automatically - in much the same way as it does for a driver in her car - without the apparent intrusion of rational thought or logical inference. Intuitive judgements are therefore tacit and unconscious and often appear to come from nowhere.

School leaders who are highly intuitive will often find it difficult to explain why they took a particular decision. Such leaders are often preoccupied with gaining an overview of a situation at the expense of detail and run the risk of missing out on vital information.

Yet the analytical leader who lacks experience in a particular field or who undervalues intuition can slow themselves down, as they have to gather "all" the facts before they make decisions.

Analytical decision-making should therefore always be balanced with intuition (wisdom based on many reinforced experiences).

I believe it is vital that leaders are aware of their own bias towards being either intuitive or analytical. Just as importantly, they must learn to recognise if they are making decisions based on gut feeling but without the necessary experience for these to be the best choices.

Senior leaders often have a highly developed intuitive capacity because of their weight of acquired experience. Yet that intuition is lost when a person moves out of their own field of experience. I myself experienced that when I became a director of social work as well as being director of education. Whereas before I was able to make quick, intuitive decisions, I became paralysed by having to have all of the information before I would commit to action.

Of course, not all intuition is "good". Any asset can be a double-edged sword. Nevertheless, I would encourage school leaders to have more faith in their intuition and to develop it in themselves and others. Seek feedback on your intuitive judgements to build confidence in your "gut feeling"; try to work out how often your intuition provides you with the correct answer; and record your intuitive judgement before it is censored by others' rational analysis. Good luck.

Don Ledingham is director of innovation leadership at personal development consultancy Drummond International.

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