Intuition as a Leadership Asset by Larissa Conte
one of the most frequent and mysterious topics I explore with my coaching clients.
It inspires curiosity, intrigue, skepticism, judgement, and profound personal growth, as we work together to develop their intuition as a powerful asset. In this article, I share how I help leaders develop their intuition as a key capability by exploring:
What intuition is and how it relates to intellect,
How to develop intuitive capacities, and
How to leverage intuition for more effective leadership.
Distinguishing intellect and intuition
Though U.S. culture, and even our dictionaries, can conflate intellect and intelligence, I regard intellect and intuition as two core forms of human intelligence. “Intelligence” derives from the Latin intelligere, meaning to understand, comprehend, or perceive (*and it has its own wide-ranging set of definitions). In this frame, I see intellect and intuition as two distinct ways that humans understand and make sense of the world around us. Here’s what “intellect” and “intuition” mean to me:
Intellect is a way of knowing that sources from thinking. It relies on the powers of the mind (logic, reasoning and analysis), explores structural coherence/incoherence, and seeks to answer “How can I understand my experience and the world through ideas and reasoning?”
Intuition is a way of knowing that sources from feeling. It relies on our sensing abilities (feeling energy and emotions in self, others, relationships, and the larger living fabric), explores stylistic coherence/incoherence, and seeks to answer “What’s the information in what I’m feeling?”
It’s easy to understand why intellect and intelligence are often equated as meaning the same thing if your worldview positions logical reasoning as the only way to understand life. In the U.S., we rely on intellect as our primary means of understanding—still strongly imprinted upon by the Cartesian legacy from the seventeenth century of “I think, therefore I am”—with our whole educational system designed around successive layers of intellectual development and little-to-no dedication to intuitive development. However, feelings are rich with information, and I believe each of us has a deep intelligence that sources from feeling.
Though the following content is often attributed to Albert Einstein, Bob Samples interpreted Einstein’s perspective on intuition and the rational mind while also asserting his own view:
“Albert Einstein called the intuitive or metaphoric mind a sacred gift. He added that the rational mind was a faithful servant. It is paradoxical that in the context of modern life we have begun to worship the servant and defile the divine.”
People often discount intuition on the basis of being less rigorous or trustworthy than intellect, but my current hypothesis is that both intuition and intellect can be biased by our worldviews or experiences. Namely, both of these forms of intelligence are valuable ways to understand ourselves and the world, but neither is a foolproof route to truth.
One of the primary values of intuitive intelligence is self-understanding—knowing what you want and the lessons you have to learn from your desires.
Intuition often first comes up with my clients because they want to have a deeper connection to their true desires and authentic self.
“I want a new job. I’m miserable where I am. But I don’t even know what I’m best at or what would be most fulfilling for me to pursue next.”
“I don’t like the way I’ve been leading. I feel like I’ve been being my idea of who a leader has to be—not my true self. But I’m scared that if I start being myself, people won’t accept me and my business will fall apart.”
“I don’t feel good about this deal. It looks right on paper, but there’s something that feels really wrong about it and I don’t know what to do.”
It comes up because they want to feel a sense of integrity in their decision-making, rather than making decisions based on rationalizations. But because we’re so habituated to the belief that intellect is the only form of intelligence, we often push aside what feels most aligned with our truth because we believe that will be the likeliest route to success or because we crave social acceptance. The continual act of ignoring our inner listening or denying what we hear erodes our intuitive abilities. That’s why listening is foundational to living our truth, as I wrote about in my prior article, and is a critical first step in intuitive development.
Intellect and intuition are great teammates in the process of Wayfinding. At the most basic level, intuition tells us our Yes and and our No. It is not our ideas about WHY Yes or No—it’s just the pure feeling. Once we know our feelings about something, then we can inquire into the underlying information behind the feeling, and chart the best course forward. In my experience, I often use intuition to perceive a feeling and any available information in that feeling. Then I use my intellect to understand the call or information in the feeling, track patterns, and assess how to best act on that feeling. I rely deeply on both my intellect and intuition and constantly interweave them in my day-to-day choices.
Practices for building intuition
Here are several of the core practices I use with clients, and for myself, to help develop intuitive capacity:
First, you have to give yourself permission—without this, you can’t even engage the territory.
Then you need to deepen your listening to understand how your Yes and No register for deeper fluency in how you sense things.
With these two skills in place, you can explore skills like:
Listening to right timing
Finding balance, and
Honing your intuition with others.
Giving yourself permission
Starting with permission might seem like an obvious or unnecessary step, but it’s the most important one because we so deeply stigmatize intuition in the U.S. Establishing permission and legitimizing intuition with my clients starts with some form of role modeling and disclosure about my experiences with intuition. This is integral to how I coach and, in turn, helps my clients recall times in their lives when their intuition communicated valuable information. In my experience, giving permission takes an initial effort and needs to be revisited again and again as you build your intuitive capabilities because you’re learning to trust the muscle and often want it to perform at the level of your intellectual development, but need to give it time to strengthen and take shape.
As one of the women in the Intuitive Leadership Circle I ran with Laura Griffiths said:
“I started this journey with an intent to be more like myself, which is the exact opposite of everything I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve learned I can go against the norms of thinking with my head, leading with my ego, and that from that place, something magical can happen, but it actually takes serious intention to be authentic. I’ve gotten the permission to feel here. This is the only forum where I feel I’ve had that permission in my life. Or rather the only one where I’ve given it to myself and taken it.”
Deepening your listening
Next, I create practices for clients to listen for their Yes and No and how to act on this information, as I detailed in my prior article. I have people start with listening for their Yes and No and how it registers in their sensing because if we can’t hear and foster what’s aligned in our own life, then we won’t be able to do this effectively in the more complex systems of our teams and businesses.
This skill often takes a few weeks to initially develop because we’re so habituated to denial behaviors like rushing around, being busy, filling our lives with distraction, and not paying attention to our bodies. When you don’t hear the information your body is sending you and you keep carrying on in extended denial, the small signals of necessary change build up a pressure system that arrives with a bigger impact. It’s like the Earth’s plates that build up pressure when try to move past each other without the mini slippages and tiny earthquakes to relieve the gradual buildup. That’s how we get the big earthquakes in our lives—a divorce, a coronary, failure of your business, etc. So it behooves us to listen and react to the small, early signals.
Most people have a clear sensing vocabulary for Yes and No that are quite distinct and I have them begin with getting fluent in those feelings. Then I have them notice what helps or prevents them from hearing their Yes or No, in addition to where they act on this information in their lives, where they don’t, and why. After that, I usually have them take actions to come into alignment with their truth and to listen for more complex information beyond just Yes and No.
Listening to right timing
Once you’ve gained clarity about whether you’re a Yes or No to something and that it’s best to take action on the information, that doesn’t mean it’s currently the right time to act, because you need to listen inwardly to yourself and outwardly to your context. Listening to right timing is the practice of sensing how your internal needs align with your external conditions. Just because you might want something to happen and feel ready to do it, your environment, the people you’re interacting with, the systems you’re in, etc., might not be open to it for any given reason and you have to sense what’s appropriate when.
In the example of a colleague I was advising, she was designing a large event and wanted to get the invitations out before the end of last year. She said, “I feel the like the invitations want to be sent right now.” I paused because it was the second week of December and I didn’t think anyone wants an invitation for an event several months into the New Year just before the holidays. I asked, “Do the invitations want to be sent right now, or do YOU want them to be sent so you can have them off your plate even though it might not be the best timing for the invitees?” After she sat with it, she realized it was her own internal pressure communicating to her and not the right time for the recipients.
Balance isn’t an idea—it’s a feeling—and a constantly changing one at that. It requires consciously creating tension between seemingly paradoxical attributes or feelings.
When we crave balance in our lives, like work-life balance, we need to be able to sense and foster fulfillment in multiple areas of our life that have contrasting natures. The focus and performance we bring to our work are quite different than the spaciousness and renewal of personal time. Oftentimes we struggle at balance because we’re used to applying one life strategy in all circumstances, like high-performance and being constantly on, while being weak in the attributes that balance our habitual mode and/or have difficulty holding multiple awarenesses and shifting gears between modes of being.
The act of finding balance has a great deal to do with structure and space (or surrender) in a way that’s similar to building a fire.
If your kindling bundle is jammed full of sticks, there’s too much wood and not enough air, so the fire isn’t going to catch when you try to light it. It’s just suffocated and constricted. This is akin to when we apply too much structure, force, or will to a situation, closing down the necessary space for creative ignition.
On the other hand, if you only have three sticks spread way apart, there’s not enough density of fuel (structure) and the fire won’t light. Much like when we go into total surrender without any clarity of listening or intention, we get blown to and fro by the winds of life and lack the container for aligned, creative emergence to occur.
The sweet spot lies in what I call focused receptivity—listening with both intent and openness of mind. It’s having a clear curiosity about something without attachment to how things will unfold. It’s a practice that relies on astute listening, continual feeling, and dynamic evolution.
Honing your intuition with others
Because intuition is about feeling emotions and energy—essentially perceiving style in the invisible realm—one of the main ways to hone your intuition is by developing your ability to verbalize the subtleties you feel and to check those feelings against others’ perceptions. Like any discipline, the practice of putting language to distinctions is a powerful way to advance your intuition. And because what you’re talking about has no physical form, I find it incredibly helpful to develop distinctions through shared observation and discussion with others. One way I do this with clients and colleagues is to share our perceptions of how something feels (a piece of art, a person, a bird, the environment we’re in, etc.) or to ask clarifying questions about how they feel about an event in their life to evoke greater precision.
Just as a beginning naturalist may first start by recognizing plants and then learn what distinguishes ferns from shrubs and annual flowering plants, so too do my clients start with perceiving something that feels good, for example, and moving on to being able to distinguish feelings like buoyant from content, inspired, or enamored. The invisible landscape often has more than one type of feeling occurring, much like natural ecosystems, so it’s helpful to develop your species recognition of different feelings and energies, so you can more effectively map complexities and relationships.
Leading from intuition and intellect
Once my clients have baseline comfort with their new intuitive skills in their personal lives, we then explore how to apply intuition at work. Intuition is a powerful leadership tool because it enhances one’s ability to sense alignment, misalignment, and the need for change in systems. Specifically, intuition can improve your abilities to:
Sense im/balance, trajectory, and the main impacting forces on a system at any scale—from the individual to team, department, organization, the wider community, the market, etc.
Feel friction or obstruction points, have early sensing of needed changes to prevent systemic weakness, and anticipate systems crash at any level
A frequent example of this, which causes great energetic drain in teams, is interpersonal friction and what’s not being said
Effectively steward energy, resources, and pacing across those scales
Generate creative aspects of work, like coming up with new ideas and strategies or feeling if a concept is clear enough for experimentation or execution
Applying intuition in any one of these ways can then be combined with intellectual investigation or execution to reveal a clearer path forward for growth.
Due to the social stigma around intuition, the biggest challenge for people is often not sensing, but communicating information from their intuition to an intellectually-oriented person or group in a way that lands. I recommend starting with small-scale intuitions first and building from there, as is wise on any developmental journey. Here are some guidelines for choosing if and how to best communicate your intuition at work:
First, locate where the feeling is coming from and assess whether it’s appropriate to communicate.
Is it partially or wholly a trigger or aspect of your ego?
If so, there’s personal work for you to do to resolve your sense of charge.
Are you accurately sensing something going on in your team, another person, or a relationship?
In this case, it may be wise to communicate.
Next, assess how to best communicate.
Can this information be received or do you have to share it to honor your own sense of integrity?
It’s always ideal for such information to be received, but sometimes we see things that a system or power structure is in forceful denial about that we have to give voice to for our own integrity.
If No to both of these questions, consider whether or not it’s best to share.
What is the best timing and forum to share?
Use your intuition and your intellect to determine whether the immediate moment or another setting in the future is most appropriate. The skill of listening to right timing is key here.
Who is the best audience and what do they care about?
As with any effective communication, it’s important to connect the information you want to relay with your audience’s needs and concerns. If you don’t, it likely won’t land.
How can you best share the information you’re perceiving?
Some options include asking a question to direct group awareness toward what you’re sensing and stating how you’re feeling.
E.g. “We feel stuck to me. Does anyone have an idea of the best way to move forward?”
The more you practice sensing at work, combining your intuition and intellect, and communicating your intuition to others, the easier your will find it is to flex your intuition as a reliable leadership asset.
My question to you: How can you develop your intuition for more effective leadership?
To connect with Larissa Conte, firstname.lastname@example.org
Larissa is a leadership coach and rites of passage guide through her business, Wayfinding. She teaches leaders to navigate from their deep listening into greater alignment by blending ten years of experience in leadership coaching, culture consulting, ecosystems science, ceremony design and facilitation, and holistic healing.
Larissa’s offerings range from 1:1 coaching and leadership circles to nature-based rites of passage and leadership qigong. All of her work is designed to help clients foster integrity through inner listening, embody their authentic leadership style, and navigate from their center, so they can more skillfully serve as stewards of creative energy. She’s worked with hundreds of leaders across the Fortune 100 and startups and is based in San Francisco.