Forest or Trees?

While my intention is never to annoy others, I know that I sometimes do.

When I was younger, I’d go to meetings and say something that would inevitably draw puzzled looks from the others. It was almost as if I was saying something in a foreign language. After shaking their heads, the other participants would continue their previous stream of conversation – typically one that involved a lot of detail. After being ignored for the rest of the meeting I’d beat myself up thinking, “Why on earth couldn’t I just learn to keep my mouth shut?”

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but the truth is today I speak up far more during meetings and put far less emphasis on whether or not people get what it is I’m trying to say.

Although I’m not as concerned about what people think about me anymore, sadly there still doesn’t seem to be much patience with people who see the whole forest but aren’t as good at getting the facts right about the trees.

Trust me, I very much get that I’m not as good as others with the details but why is it that those abilities are the ones that are more apt to be valued?  Surely it must be clear that if we only discuss and debate the trees that we’ll lose sight of the forest?  After all, there are many times when we had all the facts and details but still didn’t have a good grip on the full picture because we didn’t pay attention to intuition.

I’ve learned that there are those who are simply wired to see systems, patterns and paths in the forest long before they’re visible to others. And, while our language has many words for describing detail and the information we gain from our five senses, we don’t have a lot of words to describe this six sense intuition.

Instead, we’re more likely to respect and value the people who are good at reporting facts and what research can prove. It’s not an unexpected bias given that experts suggest between two-thirds and three-quarters of the general population prefer factual data to intuitive data.

This bias means we’re not as likely to value intuition and are instead more apt to attribute it to a lucky guess or brush it off as “women’s intuition”.  We’re much more comfortable with what we can prove by what we can see, hear, touch or measure.

However it is increasingly evident, at least to me anyway, that in today’s complex environment, we need both types of knowing – fact based and intuitive.
Intuitive knowing comes far easier to me than that which is fact-based. And yet, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time honing my fact based knowing in order to pass muster as a manager.

It seems to me, that just as I have spent a lot of time developing my fact based knowing, so too do all those who are already expert in that area need to spend time developing their intuition.

Those rooted in the concrete of details, perhaps need to do more to accept a playful attitude to explore what is possible in order to develop their intuitive side. 

Today intuition is far more important largely because we’re operating in an unpredictable environment. Applying rational methods in an irrational world just doesn’t work. If we attempt to hang onto rationality as the basis for our decision making, we may lose the window of opportunity for action.

Everywhere I go these days, there seems to be a growing recognition that the old ways and the old rules just don’t work anymore. So why on earth would we think that traditional fact based decision making is the answer?

Intuitive leadership is less about facts and more about knowledge, character, experience, and wisdom. It is much more about asking the question, “Is this the right thing to do?” and then trusting our gut reaction to the answer. 

Posted on 06-20-09

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