Gut Check

If you don’t put anything in your gut, should you trust it?

Our personality, which is mostly innate, largely dictates the way we lead and manage. If you were born more of a thinker versus a feeler, an extrovert versus an introvert, someone who eats alphabet soup A through Z versus more of a creative soul, it instructs how you lead your organization. Nothing wrong with that! However, it’s good to know what your natural tendencies are, realize what the associated strengths and weaknesses are and work on developing your nondominant abilities.

One thing successful entrepreneurs will tell you (by the way, I mean “real” entrepreneurs—the ones who are intuitive and resilient and have a high tolerance for risk) is that you need to trust your gut.

But it depends on what’s in your gut!

Few successful entrepreneurs become leaders of large organizations. Few leaders of large organizations are real entrepreneurs. They’re both necessary for business and our economy to work, and we should value both of them, but they’re often different animals.

Entrepreneurs in startup situations don’t have a large team of people to help make decisions. They probably don’t have a well-developed, systematic approach to vet ideas. They need to trust their gut. In fact, if they tried to use the same decision-making approach that’s successful in a large company, they’d likely run out of money before sundown. If their business idea gains traction and they start profitably growing, they’ll not only need to retain some of their intuition but also learn how to collaborate, build systems and develop mechanisms beyond their gut to continue growing their business and as a leader. What got them to first base won’t likely get them to home plate.

Corporate leaders who rely on trusting their gut versus a systems approach have to be brilliant and charismatic (e.g., Steve Jobs) or they’ll never succeed. A large organization requires commitment, not just compliance and commitment comes from being involved in decision making. The ability to leverage a team’s intelligence is much different from relying mostly on your own. It requires different skills, systems and activities.

As a side note, when an organization gets into a big mess and needs a dramatic shift, entrepreneurial behavior — someone with a solid gut — is usually necessary to turn the ship.

My problem with the trust-your-gut approach, whether in a big company or a startup, is that it depends on what’s in your gut. What we don’t often see is that successful entrepreneurs spent intense decades scanning the environment, absorbing knowledge like a sponge and testing their theories before they were able to trust their gut. Their decisions are largely a reflection of the quality and quantity of inputs that they immersed themselves in before they could make those breakout decisions.

By all means, trust your gut, but make sure you consider the unintended consequences and your knowledge level first. Even Steve Jobs looked for enlightenment on a mountaintop in India before he acted brilliantly. …

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