Women in Leadership


David M. Traversi asked:

Hunch, gut feeling, impression, psychic hit — these are all names for this power called intuition. Intuition is a tool for acquiring knowledge without the process of rational thought. It is the sixth sense; it is what informs you beyond the first five senses of taste, hearing, touch, smell, and sight. I’ve always liked Laura Day’s definition in Practical Intuition: she describes intuition as “knowing without knowing why you know” (Day 1997, 81). Each of us has it, and each of us can develop it to powerful levels.

What is the source of this knowledge? Simply put, the universe. It is everything you have ever experienced or known. In fact, it is everything humankind has experienced or known. Carl Jung (1959), the famous Swiss psychiatrist, conducted extensive studies and concluded that there a “collective unconscious” that is common to every person. This collective unconscious is essentially a library of human experience into which any of us can rap at any time.

This chapter addresses the rise and fall, and imminent rise again, of intuition. You’ll learn how to develop your intuition and make it a powerful driver that fuels your ability as a leader to define yourself; inspire your team; form the optimal, compelling vision for your organization; and assemble a responsive structure to execute that vision.

The First Rise of Intuition

At some point in the millions of years of human evolution, the human brain developed a capacity for intuition. This capacity is in the right side of the brain, whereas our rational, logical capabilities reside in the left side. The right side of the brain is inward focused, fueled from deep within. The left is externally focused, fueled by external data, Until the last two centuries, we humans relied upon intuition as heavily as we relied upon our other five senses. We were “balanced-brain beings.”

Think about a world where the only data you could access is that which you perceived through your tongue, ears, skin, nose, and eyes. Physically, you were limited by how far your feet would carry you. In your effort to survive, you undoubtedly relied greatly on rational thought and your left brain. You saw rain clouds gathering on the horizon, sensed cooler temperatures and higher humidity on your skin, and deduced that rain was likely and you better bring in the meat that was drying on racks outside your cave.

But the amount of data that could be perceived through your five senses and fed into your rational thought processes was so limited that you also relied greatly upon the nonlogical senses in your right brain — that is, you relied on your intuition. You may have felt the presence of valuable water beyond a distant mountain. Long before you saw or heard anything, you likely felt the threat of an approaching pack of predatory animals. Simply by seeing the silhouette of a stranger approaching in the distance, you may have sensed he was from a friendly tribe and thus meant no harm. In fact, in shamanic cultures, going back tens of thousands of years, the greater your intuition, the more likely you were to be the tribal leader and healer.

The Fall of Intuition

During the past two hundred years, however, most people became primarily left-brain beings. As the velocity and complexity of life accelerated, we humans focused outward. This change was not due to a conscious choice; we were simply overwhelmed by the external world. With very little time to ground ourselves amid the onslaught of external data, we lost confidence in intuition. We came to rely disproportionately on rational thinking.


Ever so insidiously, technological advances opened up data channels, or means of exchanging information. They began to overfeed our left brains. First, we progressed from travel by foot and riding on the backs of animals to engine-powered vehicles. We were able to cover a lot more ground and, as a result, gather more data to feed our left brains. Then, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we developed the telegraph, telephone, typewriter, calculator, radio, television, audio recorder, video recorder, fax machine, mobile phone, and, of course, the personal computer, and the Internet. Today the velocity and complexity of our lives has become overwhelming. Most of us are literally being flooded with data, which our left brains must process. We simply don’t have time to fully use our right brain and, specifically, its powerful ability to intuit. Intuition as a tool has largely been crowded out of our existence. It still exists, of course. We have each experienced the first impression that proved to be absolutely correct. Yet we just don’t have the time or energy to use or develop our intuition. And because we don’t use it much, we don’t trust it much.

Childhood Conditioning

As technology began to change the shape of industry in the nineteenth century, industry began to change the shape of families and education. As men and women began working away from their homes and farms, the education of children changed from homeschooling to collective education. Schools began to proliferate, and more children left home each day to go to school. To effectively manage education, teachers and administrators, understandably, increasingly relied upon objective tools. In particular, they increasingly relied upon tests, with right and wrong answers. The quest for the right answer became paramount. Parents bought into it, unconsciously I’m sure, in an effort to stay on top of their children’s progress without investing too much time out of their busy days. The result was that the left brain, home to the thinking process necessary to formulate a “right” answer, or to distinguish between a right and wrong answer, increased in importance vis-à-vis the right brain.

Social Conditioning

Another phenomenon of recent history is the development of a culture that discourages personal responsibility. Our governments, court systems, and religions encourage many of us to believe we are without power. Many of us believe our lives are determined by other people and forces beyond our control. With the pervasiveness of this belief, it is easy to see why we ignore and distrust this powerful driver of intuition that burns inside of us. We feel these outside forces have control over us, and they want “correct”– objectively defined and verifiable — behavior from us. We’d better provide that behavior or we will suffer.

What if I, the head of a regional office of a multinational company, closed the office one day and gave everyone a holiday because I had a gut feeling that productivity on that day, for reasons I could not quantify or even rationally explain, would be so low that it wouldn’t justify opening, or that a holiday would boost morale such that future productivity would increase disproportionately to the cost of the holiday? Chances are that I would be ridiculed and perhaps even reprimanded by my superiors. They believe that my ability to positively affect conditions is limited and is prescribed in their policies and procedures, and any attempt to affect conditions outside of those limitations is discouraged. And most people buy into their limitations because they do not want to risk a reprimand or other negative consequence. As a result, most people suffer a diminished sense of personal responsibility and, of course, have a lesser ability to positively affect conditions in their lives.

Fact Addiction

Somewhere along the way, in our pursuit of the “right” answer, many of us became addicted to facts. Indeed, we associate “facts” with virtue and rightness. Many think that those armed with facts are more credible, indeed better, than the unarmed. We built a system of criminal and civil justice that depends first upon identifying facts and then applying law to those facts. We extended the mentality, and indeed the process, far beyond the courtroom. Kids taunt each other with expressions like, “Yo
u can’t prove it!” Parents interrogate th
eir kids to discover the facts, so they can determine who is right and who is wrong, and who should be punished and who rewarded. When there is trouble at school, teachers vow to “get to the bottom of it.” This continues all the way through to the most sophisticated levels of human activity, where anything uttered on Wall Street, at a biotech convention, or in the U.S. Senate must be validated by verifiable “facts” or it is discredited.

But what is a fact? It is a mere snapshot of reality. As a snapshot, it is limited in time, range, and context. First, it is only valid as of the time of the snapshot. What existed at the moment of the snapshot is now different and will be different again at every moment going forward. Second, the snapshot only captures a limited range of reality at the time of the snapshot, and its value is maximized only where we can understand it in the context of everything outside of its range. While I may try hard to document the reality outside of the snapshot, it is impossible for me to really know everything that existed outside the range.

Let’s say I head up a U.S. car manufacturer. You tell me you surveyed all car owners in the country for their preferences, and found the overwhelming majority loves hybrid vehicles and would like to buy one. Well, the data was good at the time the survey was conducted, but it is now stale. Maybe demand for hybrids has gone up, and maybe it has gone down, but it is certainly not identical to what it was at the time of the survey. Moreover, an infinite number of outside conditions might have had an effect on the survey, such as the price of oil, the threat of war in the Middle East, consumer confidence, household savings rates, fashion trends, superior technologies under development, and the phrasing of the survey questions. In reality, the “facts” that seem to indicate a strong demand for hybrids may be illusory in this moment.

Nevertheless, many of us are addicted to facts. We fill up our left brains with them and crowd out the ability of our right brains to exercise some influence on what we believe and how we behave.

The Mega-Sized Organization

Two hundred years ago, outside of military forces, organized religion, and political or governmental bodies, few large organizations existed. And even where large organizations did exist, the lack of technology meant that leaders of businesses, government entities, social organizations, and educational institutions directly interacted with the people in their organizations and those whom the organization served. People looked into the eyes of other people who affected their lives.

With the booming human population and our creation of the Industrial Revolution and Information Age, large organizations have increased dramatically in both number and in size. Today leaders of large organizations are often far removed from both the members of their organization and the people — such as customers, suppliers, and shareholders — who influence the organization from the outside. They create policy and then employ multitudes of people to execute it. They control the behavior of their employees the only way they know how, through objective means. Performance and productivity are measured, weighed, and analyzed. Just as there is little room for personal contact in an efficient mega-organization, there is also little room for intuition.

Intuition Rises Again

Ironically, like the nutrient-rich ashes from which the phoenix rose, the primary cause of intuition’s fall — technology and the resulting flood of data pouring into our left brains — is fueling its revival. We are overwhelmed with data. We are confused. We are tired. We are ungrounded. We are not making better decisions than we used to. We are not behaving better.

We need to find an anchor in the storm — an anchor that will help us manage the data better and with less stress, an anchor that will make the data more relevant and thus help us make better decisions and behave better, an anchor that will bring us closer to reality, that will ground us and rejuvenate us. That anchor is intuition.

The Highest and Best Uses of Intuition

Intuition should not be used in a vacuum. At least I would never use it alone. My intuitive skills are just not advanced enough — and likely never will be — to depend upon them to the exclusion of external data and logical thinking. Likewise, intuition should never be ignored. At a minimum, intuition is a tool to be used in conjunction with all other input in the decision-making process. At certain times, however, intuition can be dominant, including the following:

When Relevant Facts are Scarce or Conflicting. Many times we find ourselves in a position of having insufficient facts, facts that conflict with each other, or facts that are old or inapplicable. This is the time to turn to intuition for direction.

When We Just Can’t Decide Among Alternatives. At other rimes, we are just plain undecided. We can’t make a decision. We line up the pros and cons, we weigh them, and we analyze them ad nauseum, but we still can’t decide. Intuition, in my experience, always provides the answer, and always the right one. We may fight our intuition, stacking all the objective data against it and arguing why our intuition is wrong, but intuition, in my experience, is always correct.

When Under Time Pressure. Intuition is a perfect tool, indeed the only tool, when there is time pressure to act or react and the data does not provide a clear course. I believe the old adage that if something is too good to be true, it usually isn’t true. But there have been times in my career when I was presented with an “urgent” opportunity to pursue something that promised a huge windfall, and the possibility of the windfall got me salivating as I considered the opportunity. I knew in my heart that the opportunity was very risky, the windfall was very uncertain, or the people involved were less than professional, but the size of the potential windfall made me think hard. At those times, I always went with my intuition and, to my knowledge, not one of the opportunities I passed on ever amounted to anything.

When Dealing With Human Issues. Intuition is critical when dealing with human issues, such as hiring, firing, staffing, and partnering. Objective facts are very important, but as a final determinant at “crunch time,” they just don’t compete with our intuitive ability to assess another human being. I have hired people with extraordinarily impressive resumes, over intuitive objections, only to have them flame out. Likewise, I have hired extraordinary employees who had only lukewarm resumes but strong intuitive appeal.

Copyright © 2007 David M. Traversi

The above is an excerpt from the book The Source of Leadership

by David M. Traversi

Published by New Harbinger Publications, Inc. ;2007;$24.95US; 978-1-57224-508-2

Copyright © 2007 David M. Traversi


David M. Traversi is the founder and managing director of 2020 Growth Partners, LLC (, which offers executive coaching, strategic advisory, merchant banking, and leadership development services to executives and companies across the United States. He has worked as a chief executive of operating companies, a trial lawyer, a commercial lender, an investment banker, and private company investor. In addition, he has started several successful companies in diverse industries. Traversi holds an MBA from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkley, and a JD from the King Hall School of Law at the University of California, Davis.

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