Research & Thought Leadership

Agile Leadership: Building your Intuitive Intelligence

Colin Williams, Sharon Olivier, and Frederick Hölscher

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We live in turbulent times (not only because of the current health pandemic) that require leaders to be agile: adaptable and reactive. Their ability to develop organizational responsiveness is critical.

In our book “Agile Leadership for Turbulent Times: integrating your ego, eco, and intuitive intelligence” we explore how to develop leadership agility. The challenge is to think and act differently depending on the context. To be able to use an approach that works ‘in the moment’ knowing that it may need to evolve in order to maintain momentum or adjust direction.

In our book, we offer three perspectives which we call ‘intelligences’ as they are ways of seeing, sense-making, and responding:

1. Ego intelligence (shaping) – the ability to shape ideas, provide direction, make things happen, to create an identity and a sense of belonging, to motivate through personal inspiration, clarity of thought, and communication.

2. Eco intelligence (integrating) – the ability to connect with others, to empower them, to build relationships, integrate diverse perspectives, to release energy, coach and develop people, to build fluid responsive structures and processes.

3. Intuitive intelligence (sensing) – the ability to see beyond the obvious, to connect with other sources of inspiration, to be creative, original, ground-breaking. To think ‘outside the box’.

The leader has to blend these three intelligences appropriately for the context. As shown in the diagram below, we suggest that leadership is a process, rather than simply a person or a position. The three intelligences are interdependent. They are shared by formal and informal leaders as ideas are generated, refined, challenged, integrated, and turned into concrete actions through the process of divergence, emergence, and convergence.

We believe that at the present moment, building and using intuitive leadership intelligence is important. Intuitive leaders tend to be optimistic and see potential where others may only see problems to be solved. At beginning of the first period of confinement in March 2020, using their intuitive intelligence allowed some leaders to think ‘outside the box’ and to reframe the constraints imposed as opportunities. Examples of this range from universities dramatically accelerating their development of virtual teaching – opening up completely new markets in so doing, to the concierge in a block of flats in Dubai offering a delivery service (for a fee) from the lobby to each individual apartment as deliverers were no longer allowed access to the building.

We have also heard many people saying, “Ah but I am not very intuitive.” We disagree – everyone can develop their intuition!

6 recommendations to develop your intuitive intelligence:

1. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness can be defined as ‘paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally’ opening the mind. It requires us to be able to focus our mind and to develop a heightened sense of self (what am I thinking and feeling right now) and our environment to pick up subtle clues. This gives the unconscious mind space to reflect and to connect thoughts and ideas in parallel with the conscious mind which normally dominates our thinking. It is helpful to practice mindfulness in day-to-day activities and meetings, as well as regular meditation.

Take the time in a meeting to ‘zone out’ of the conversation and see what your intuition is telling you about the situation and the people. Give yourself time and space to allow a solution to emerge. It is well known that many of the best ideas come to people when they are not under pressure e.g. out for a walk or lying in bed.

2. Listen differently

Stop listening to what you are hearing people say at a rational level. Instead, focus on what is NOT being said. What is ‘written between the lines’? Why are some subjects being avoided or not explored? What are the ‘elephants in the room’? Give enough space in conversations for things to emerge rather than constantly ‘forcing the pace’ – a skill many of us have over-developed!

Be aware of how you may, unintentionally, stop people speaking through positional power or personal presence. Last year Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was partially destroyed by a huge fire. At the height of the blaze, which only lasted a few hours, the general in charge of the operation (firefighters in Paris are military personnel) prepared to announce to his men that they would have to sacrifice the iconic twin belfry towers to the fire. As he looked at their faces, he caught the eye of a sergeant who appeared to be hesitating to speak. With the general’s encouragement, the sergeant shared his idea of how to stop the fire attacking the towers. As a result, the towers are still part of the Paris skyline. Had the general not sensed the sergeant had an idea, they would have been destroyed.

3. Amplify weak signals

Sigmund Freud famously said, “nothing is an accident”. Explore meaningful coincidences (synchronicity), look for root causes. React to events that cannot be rationally explained with curiosity rather than disdain. Try to understand, build hypotheses, and invest time developing them. Look around widely, beyond your industry or sector. What is happening elsewhere that might allow you to experiment with your approach.

Have, and encourage others to have, conversations with people you would not normally speak to. The circular design of the Apple HQ in California is to encourage people to walk around, ‘bump into’ others and have conversations – Apple sees these apparently random conversations as a significant source of new ideas.

4. Trust your gut!

80% of our brains’ activity is involved in non-conscious thought. That means that if we only trust what we can rationally analyze and explain we are potentially using 20% of our capacity for thought! McCraty and Zayas of the HeartMath Institute show that the gut and the heart contain their own neural networks and have an inherent intelligence to enable non-rational and non-conscious ways of knowing[i]. Steve Jobs famously said that his customers could not know what they wanted until he invented it for them.

5. Spend time in nature

If like many people, you find it difficult to meditate sitting in silence, an alternative could be taking a walk outdoors. Do not focus on a problem, but rather the nature around you; your footsteps touching the ground, your breathing, listening to the birdsong, picking up the aromas, and feeling the temperature of the air on your skin. Intuitive insights come when we stop focussing on our problems and relax our conscious minds.

6. “Dream on”

Have you ever considered keeping a dream journal next to your bed? Some leaders explore their dreams, looking to make sense or seek inspiration from them. Others dismiss this practice as ‘hocum’. There is however increasing evidence from scientific research that shows the neural pathways used during dreams are the same as those used for intuitive thought[ii]. Many people have reported how an insight into a difficult problem comes through in a dream – the key is to capture it before it disappears!

We hope you are able to try out or expand on at least one of these practices in order to become a more intuitive leader. More guidance on how to develop your intuition and the other intelligences are discussed in our new eBook Agile Leadership for Turbulent Times. We wish you a wonderful journey!

Colin Williams, Sharon Olivier, and Frederick Hölscher are members of faculty at Hult International Business School and authors of ‘Agile Leadership for Turbulent Times’ published by Routledge.

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