How to Win at Business by Following Your Instincts

Think nobody but Malcolm Gladwell respects following your instincts? Think again.

A surprising number of psychologists and academics view acting on intuition as a vital counterpoint to more deliberate choices based on intellect. For example, intuitive consultant Sonia Choquette, author of the bestseller Trust Your Vibes at Work, says, “When you follow your gut instincts you are putting something very natural to work. Your intuition will take you beyond the threshold to a place that reflects your most passionate interests and nature.”

So it’s all good…until money comes into play. Leaders who make important decisions on gut feeling (even if they also rely on research and reports) often find that when profit, market share and stock price get involved, folks get nervous.

Turns out that even though decision-making based on instinct has proven to be a business asset, the higher the stakes get, the more hinkey investors, employees, colleagues and friends become. And if you’re really pushing the boundaries of conventional wisdom based on intuition, you might hear the ultimate criticism: “You’re crazy.”

When you hear that, smile. That’s great news. Being called mad because your ideas make others uncomfortable is, in my experience, one of the surest predictors of success. When you’re acting based on research and reports, you’re basing your choices on consensus–what everybody else is thinking–and innovation doesn’t happen by committee.

When you act on your gut, you’re unpredictable. Mercurial. Authentic. You make leaps of logic and see connections others miss. Gut instinct lets you see beyond where your business is today to what it could be tomorrow. That’s why it’s such an important part of what I call the Rare Breed.

Don’t get me wrong–instinct isn’t always right. Brain science tells us that useful gut instinct depends on having plenty of knowledge and experience about your field. And as powerful as intuition is, if you don’t follow it with planning, skill and strong management, all you’ve got is a cool idea on a whiteboard.

But the famous Apple “Think Different” commercial hit it right in the bullseye when it said, “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” Here are four examples of how counterintuitive, radical, “you’re nuts” thinking led courageous people to some profound successes:

Adam Werbach was the president of the Sierra Club when he decided to take a job consulting for Wal-Mart, one of the most rapacious corporations on the planet. His conservationist colleagues scorched him as a traitor and sellout. But Werbach’s idea was to bring about change from the inside, and he succeeded: helping Wal-Mart introduce its Personal Sustainability Project (PSP), which has helped more than 40 percent of the company’s employees embrace sustainable practices.

Henry Ford faced falling demand for his cars and high worker turnover, so in 1914 he did something that probably made other barons of industry go pale: he doubled his employees’ wages. Crazy? Well, within a year, turnover dropped by a factor of more than 20 while productivity nearly doubled, and demand for Ford cars boomed because Ford’s own workers could now afford the product they were making.

Bill Allen was CEO of Boeing in the 1950s, when the company was strictly making plans for the defense industry. But Allen had a crazy idea. He would build his own commercial jet that would serve what he was sure would soon be a booming industry: civilian air travel. So he bet the future of Boeing and convinced his board to risk $16 million on a new transcontinental airliner, the 707. The move transformed Boeing and air travel.

Sometimes, decisions or ideas that are sure to seem insane or sure to infuriate everyone around you are necessary to bring about change or move the world forward. Being able to make those calls based on the intuitive belief that they’re right is one of the hallmarks of great leadership.

If you’re hesitating to trust your gut, you’re not the only one. But trusting it might make all the difference.