Leaders and Instinct: How George Soros makes investment decisions and how Kjell Nordstrom’s dad finds the fish

I was invited to become an Execubooks blogger. Apparently they think I am a ‘business thought leader’. That’s enough laughter, thank you; I can hear you from here. Anyway, we were asked to blog last week about the emerging field of evidence-based management – incidentally, just why is this an emerging field? Weren’t we always supposed to base our decisions on the best evidence?

Professor Bob Sutton of Stanford University (whose thinking I’m a fan of) posted something I disagreed with profoundly. He said this, in favour of evidence-based management, “…organizations that rely on facts rather than intuition can outperform the competition”

Aaaggghhh! Facts and intuition are false opposites. Leaders should listen to their intuition and instincts (and allow others to do the same) because they are sub-conscious, fast ways of processing, accessing and aggregating evidence and then reaching a swift conclusion.

Here are two examples of how intuition or instinct are often alternative words to describe how we tap into what the knowledge experts call tacit knowledge – things we know but just can’t articulate.

I’ve just noticed both examples are about fathers, which is an odd coincidence.

The first is from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. Here it is:

“My father will sit down and give you theories to explain why he does this or that,” the son of the billionaire investor George Soros has said. “But I remember seeing it as a kid and thinking, ‘At least half of this is bull.’ I mean, you know the reason he changes his position on the market or whatever? It is because his back starts killing him. He literally goes into spasm and it’s this early warning sign.”

I interviewed the economist Kjell Nordstrom and he told me this story, which shows the power of instinct and that as a leader you need to find room for it as we try and move managers towards better decision-making:

“My father’s a fisherman living on the coast of Finland. He has been all his life. Occasionally he takes me out fishing in his boat. After a while, I’ll say ‘This looks like a good spot. Let’s stop here and fish.’ My father will just smile and say ‘Not today. Today the fish are over there’, and point a mile or two to the west.’ And he is nearly always right. I have given up asking how he knows. He looks at the weather, he looks at the water, he feels the wind, he feels the air pressure, he absorbs all these things and he just knows where the fish are. He feels it.”

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