Why a Leader should trust his gut intuitions

One of the most important questions facing leaders is when they should trust their gut instincts… said Nobel laureate Daniel Hahnemann and psychologist Gary Klein opus titled “Strategic decisions: When can you trust your gut?” (2010). The author suggests that leaders cannot prevent gut instincts from influencing their judgments.

One of the most important questions facing leaders is when they should trust their gut instincts… said Nobel laureate Daniel Hahnemann and psychologist Gary Klein opus titled “Strategic decisions: When can you trust your gut?” (2010).

The author suggests that leaders cannot prevent gut instincts from influencing their judgments.

What they can do is to identify situations where it is likely to be biased and then strengthen the decision process to reduce the resulting risk.

Gut instinct and trust based decisions
In a recent event, when President KAGAME was addressing an audience, he took time  to acknowledge  some personal decisions he had made based on the trust and confidence he had in certain individuals… He assumed responsibility, as if to apologize for such otherwise unavoidable decisions.

A good leader by nature has to make decisions, and more often than not, decisions are strongly influenced by strong leadership  intuitions.

A forward looking leader will take decisions based on strong instincts and convictions, which will drive changes in a dynamic society for the common good of the ordinary person.  At times, such decisions taken by placing trust in your lieutenants could lead to some unavoidable error like we have experienced in Rwanda.

As a matter of fact, the leader is always left with a number of options among which to choose the most appropriate, often against all possible scenarios built on thorough analysis of a given situation.

Here again gut intuition will play the last card. On the eve of Osama Ben Laden’s termination, among the numerous scenarios, President Obama was left with three options: total annihilation of the target’s hideout with unmanned drones, helicopter carried Navy Seals commando attack and continuous routine observation waiting for a better opportunity.

President Obama was left alone to take full responsibility of the decision and no doubt he took it out of gut instinct: information and analysis, but mostly his gut feeling, led him to opt for a commando operation.

In fact, it has been established that our judgments are shaped  by the unconscious weighing of emotional tags associated with our memories, rather than by the conscious weighing of rational pros and cons.
Given the powerful influence of positive and negative emotions on our unconscious, it is tempting to argue that leaders should never trust their gut. 

That they should make decisions based solely on objective and  logical analysis. Yet this is to do without the human nature and its unpredictability.

By the time you wind up your strategic plan, the basic data on which you have founded your assumptions have already dramatically been altered, sometimes in such a way that you should reconsider completely your conclusions.

However, before such a continuous shift of parameters on which we base our decisions, we should not leave it all to mere chance, God’s plans, time,… or whatever scapegoat we forge in order to explain or try to mitigate failures.

Bargaining with realities in decision making
In this dynamic environment, we must learn to compromise, adapt, bargain, trade-off with realities. This once again puts at stake our logical and objective analysis.

Putting  aside the urgency of some decisions, you may sometimes take decisions simply basing on gut feeling, and believe me you are not wrong.

We can’t run away from the influence of our gut instincts. They influence the options we choose to analyze. They cause us to consult some people and pay less attention to others.

They encourage us to collect more data in one area and not in another. They influence the amount of time and effort we put into decisions.

In other words, they infiltrate our decision making process even when we are trying to be analytical and rational.

Checking the decision making bias
In order to protect decisions against bias, we first need to know when we can trust our gut feelings, confident that they are drawing on appropriate experiences and emotions. For this purpose, McKinsey global management consulting firm developed a series of tests including:
• The familiarity test. Our judgment is likely to be sound if we have frequently experienced identical or similar situations and hence developed pattern recognition.

• The feedback test. In order to make a decision, we need the right information because if the information we get is filtered by protective or otherwise pernicious surroundings, the feedback process so important to the development of appropriate emotional tags is eliminated.

• The measured-emotions test. All memories come with emotional tags, but some are more highly charged than others.

If a situation brings to mind highly charged emotions, these can drastically unbalance our judgment.

• The independence test: Decisions are always likely to be influenced by any inappropriate personal interests or attachments.

An anecdote so genuinely says that “turkeys will not vote for Christmas.” If kids would enjoy Christmas trees, candies and the festive emotions, turkeys will be slaughtered in numbers…

If a situation fails even one of these four tests, we need to strengthen the decision process to reduce the risk of a bad decision.

There are usually three ways of doing this: stronger governance, additional experience and information data, or more dialogue. There are no universal safeguards. 

Additional data can challenge assumptions but will not help a decision maker who is influenced by a strong emotional experience.

If we are to make better decisions, we need to be thoughtful both about why our gut instincts might let us down and what the best safeguard is in each situation.

We should never ignore our gut. But we should know when to rely on it and when to safeguard against it.

The culture of apology
Apologies reflect the cultures within which they are embedded. In Japan, a leader’s apology is not so remarkable as in most other countries, because Japan is known to be the “apologetic society par excellence”.

During the last decade, the United States has developed an apology culture (KELLERMAN, 2006). Apologies speak to acts that cannot be undone, but that cannot go unnoticed without compromising the current and future relationship of parties (TAVUCHIS, 1991).

Leaders will publicly apologize if and when they calculate that staying silent threatens the current and future relationship with their constituencies, a pressing political need to do so.

An exception is when self interest is not immediately at stake, when the only apparent reason is genuine remorse and regret.

In this development, in 1998, while referring to genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda, President Clinton apologized for “not acting quickly enough after killings began…”. He did so even though there was no political pressure to apologize, and no one had demanded that he takes responsibility.

It may therefore be considered that such an apology was authentic rather than simply strategic.

President Kagame’s gut instinct
President KAGAME, like all leaders in all circumstances, often took decisions basing on gut instinct, and we know how often these have been very instrumental, in situations otherwise more perilous, particularly when he had to decide swiftly, often between life and death. When he decided to move in troops to put an end to genocide against Tutsis in 1994, or when, after so many fruitless warnings, he took the decision to storm criminals infested refugees camps in then Zaire, he had to rely on information, yes, but also and mostly on his guts. He has been tested enough times for familiarity with complex leadership circumstances.

He has handled situations that were highly emotionally charged and his very independent spirit is well known for having saved lives in critical moments. His apology was perfect in that he spontaneously acknowledged the flaws and accepted responsibility.

While acknowledging the genuineness of this apology, we must all recognize that leaders cannot prevent gut instinct from influencing their judgments.

All they can do is identify situations where decisions are likely to be biased and then strengthen the decision process to reduce the resulting risk, mostly when it has to do with hardly predictable human nature. 

We must therefore be prepared to own and share with him consequences, flaws or successes.

A quick glance at the recent history will show us that his decisions recorded successes more often far out beating the flaws.

Decision making becomes more complicated with the complexity of human nature. We should therefore not blame President Kagame for any flawed decisions resulting from his intuition that accorded  trust to some people who turned out  not to meet his expectations.

True,  President Kagame entrusted individuals with high political positions, who later happened to disappoint him and the nation, and are now on the run.

People have wondered why such individuals were chosen. It is once again the result of guts intuitions. Sometimes he accepted to take the risk purposely despite their known/supposed weaknesses, in the expectation that such people may change with time and exposure.

In many circumstances such exposed individuals proved to be transformed against all odds and are now good performers in different public institutions of this country. In fewer cases, loathsome individuals failed his trust.

These should not lead astray our focus nor blunder our judgment.

It is up to these irresponsible individuals to account for their misconduct towards the Rwandan people and assume their defaulting responsibility, their deceptive behavior, their failed character which did not allow their relationships with their trustor reach the expected outcomes.

For reasons including personal lucre, egocentric tendencies, and unpatriotic attitudes, they could not meet his trust and indeed the trust of the Rwandan people.

They must genuinely recognize their felony, their dishonesty and individual greed, and apologize. President Kagame has no need to apologize for trusting his guts.

The author is a Senator in the Rwandan Parliament

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