How leaders think twice - Ginette Gagnon

How leaders think twice

Edited French version published on Revue Gestion

You are in a tough meeting and you are not sure what to say next … while your colleague spontaneously speaks the right words to defuse the situation. Or maybe she found the most powerful argument to persuade other people to adhere to her ideas. Sounded so easy for her…

You really wished sometimes you were faster on your feet, more eloquent! 

Have you ever observed how senior leaders make quick decisions even if the issue seems complex to you?

Or have you witnessed an employee who can come up with innovating ideas, out of the blue?

It looks as though these people have a special gift, always knowing what to do, or what to say, just in time. How fascinating!

The ability to make wise decisions with minimal information, to adjust to others and influence them, and to think differently is a sign of admirable wit.

And is this not what is expected of a leader? 

How can one explain this talent? Can it be deliberately developed?  

One could believe from the outset that this kind of talent comes from a person’s pure intelligence, his or her faculty of reasoning. 

However, that would clearly underestimate the power of human thinking. Our brain is not limited to its rational capacities.

When you think about it, although the words spoken can be logical, thinking on your feet at high speed cannot come from the rational process.

Because it is slow, sequential, and requires conscious on effort on our part.

Let’s say you have to decide how to best allocate your budget. You gather relevant information, which you analyze methodically to get to your best conclusions. This is what we learn in school, and what our society particularly values. You consciously go step by step to eventually make a decision. It’s rational—and slow.

What I have described in the examples above, however, is very different

In the heat of the moment, in the stress of a challenging discussion, there is no time to think rationally.

Another process of human thinking must come into play.

It is a process by which a conclusion emerges to your awareness, without you necessarily being aware of the intermediate steps that led to it—although it is sometimes possible to identify them after the fact.

And this conclusion is often accompanied by a rush of emotion—excited by an idea, or enthusiastic to have found the solution, or disturbed by the negative face expression of your interlocutor.

Let’s say you must decide to whom delegate a complex task. You contemplate the list of your employees, and a name arises spontaneously in your mind. This is the process I’m referring to. Of course, it is likely that you will take a step back, and consciously and rationally analyze if indeed this employee is the right candidate. But a conclusion first appeared spontaneously … unless you do not have the required skills on your team in the first place! 

Same thing happens when you encounter someone for the first time. A conclusion emerges to your conscious mind within seconds—you like him or not, you trust or not. Obviously, you can change your mind later, but this first conclusion came to mind without you consciously engaging your rational process.

It is the same phenomenon that allows people to react and decide on the spot.

So what is this all about? 

I may surprise you, but this is the intuitive process of our brain, as explained by neuroscience a few years ago, and abundantly documented since then.

Believe me, I am the most unlikely person to talk about intuition. With a bachelor’s degree in actuarial mathematics, and a recent scientific master’s degree in management, my natural preference is the rational process!  

However, while researching for my master’s thesis (2017), I had the chance to discover a facet of management and neuroscience that focuses in the decision-making process of leaders, which goes well beyond reason. And that’s how I learned that human thinking is the product of two distinct processes: reason and intuition. Whether you know it or not. Whether you like it or not. 

There are among us people who have a natural preference for rational logic (me!), and others who are mainly guided by their instinct, their gut feelings—or intuition, if we want to use the right word. 

What about you? 

However, it is advantageous to take advantage of these two abilities

What struck me most in my research is that, by deliberately choosing to navigate between intuition and reason, you increase the likelihood of success.

Think about this for a moment…

Reason uses knowledge we are conscious of. 

Intuition, however, is formed through knowledge often unknown to our awareness (aka tacit knowledge).

Intuition is actually the brain’s ability to make analogies and to spontaneously associate the present moment to a past situation, from which it draws a conclusion, which is then raised to our consciousness.

Appealing to both reason and intuition allows you to access a vast body of conscious and unconscious knowledge. Essential to succeed as a leader. 

Between two possible solutions, our reason may hesitate, but our intuition, reinforced by our expert knowledge, could know from the start what solution is the best.

This becomes useful when there’s too little or too much information to decide from, or the decision must be drawn quickly. And it’s particularly powerful when you interact with others and you want to manage a situation with tact and efficiency.

Imagine reviewing the progress of a mandate you have delegated to one of your employees. You ask all the right questions to inquire about the status, and he gives you all the right answers. If you only listen to your reason, you might think that everything is fine. But if your intuition detects discomfort, perceives embarrassment on your employee’s face, then making the conscious choice to dig further could lead you to identify an issue that would not have emerged otherwise.

This is a concrete example where paying attention to one’s intuitions and acting rationally can make the difference between a potential for success and an assured failure.

Your intuitions, however, are not always right.

They can be based on biases and models of the world that we have created for ourselves and which may be incorrect under the circumstances. However, they are likely to be right if they are based on your expert knowledge.

Intuition may be wrong … but so does reason.

When navigating between both, you increase your potential of success as a leader.

This is not contrary to the traditional vision of leadership, which leverages intellectual and emotional intelligence. In fact, reason and intuition are at the service of these two mega competencies.

Solving complex problems often requires that intuition guides reason in one direction versus another. Emotional management is also dependent on these two ways of thinking: one to detect emotions, and the other to act appropriately. 

To succeed, you need both reason and intuition.

Thinking beyond reason

What is fabulous is that you can develop your ability to combine intuition and reason, as science and experience demonstrate.

First of all, it is necessary to know that intuition is an innate ability of human beings. In fact, whether you realize it or not, your intuition guides the majority of your decisions in a day. When the stakes are low, you are completely led by intuition. If every single decision had to be made rationally, the brain would be exhausted in no time by such effort! 

For example, you spontaneously want a dish on a restaurant menu (= intuition), and it is this one that you will order. However, if you have particular food restrictions, you will take a step back and evaluate if this dish meets your dietary requirements, which could cause you to make a different choice (= reason).

There’s no magic, we do this all the time. However, the challenge is to maintain this ability to navigate between intuition and reason even when under stress, and dealing with complex situations.

The great news is that you can train yourself to do so, regardless of your natural propensity to be rational or intuitive.

Here’s how:

  1. Pay attention to your intuitions
    For many of us, the first step is to be attentive to the intuitions that emerge. It may be a challenge these days, when your attention is overstretched. Paying more attention requires calm, and keeping the focus on what you feel and perceive, beyond words.
  2. Become the impartial observer of your intuitions
    Detecting an intuition is the first part of the job. The second is to determine if this information is useful to you, by taking a step back. It only takes a fraction of a second to find that the dish you want does not suit you, or that you should ask more questions because your employee looks embarrassed.
  3. Exercise your power of veto:
    Once you have an intuition, you have the choice to ignore it because it seems to come from one of your biases, or to take it into account, especially if it is based on your expertise.

Thoughtful leadership

Imagine developing your ability to stay in the moment, fully aware of what is happening in you and around you. Aware of the intuitions that emerge, and observing their relevance with impartiality.

You will be surprised by your findings, and by how much you neglected useful information in the past! 

With your intuition and your assessment of whether they are right, you will increase your ability to adapt and influence people, make better decisions, and even innovate.

(By the way, if you want to learn more, I suggest you read this free guide on the art of making better decisions through the combination of intuition and reason)

You will become a thoughtful leader, informed by both thought processes, rather than being dominated by one or the other.

You can thus perform better in all aspects of leadership: be it in terms of delegation, influence, strategy and execution, to name a few. 

This can make all the difference between a potential for success and an assured failure. You will love the way you lead the people you care about.

I coach and write about thoughtful leadership that leverages all of his or her abilities to decide and act wisely.


I wrote a book on the subject, appeared in print in 2017. It deals with intuition and reason, and how far to navigate between the two can influence in a remarkable way.

A brand new edition will be available in 2020, both in French and in English. If you wish to be informed of its release, please subscribe to my newsletter.

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