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How Leaders Turn Gut Feelings into Action

blogpost coaching leadership Feb 22, 2021

Most of the business owners I’ve gotten the chance to work with have a sort of 6th sense when it comes to their business. This gut instinct has been honed through years of leading their business through many ups and downs--and it’s become so ingrained, it’s often this intangible “you know before you know” feeling... you know?

While most leaders have this intuitive “inner voice”, there are two common mistakes I see owners make when faced with big decisions:

  • Relying on their intuition when they shouldn’t
  • Not relying on it when they should.

Here’s why either of those scenarios can land them in trouble.

The Cost of Misusing (or Not Using) Intuition

When owners over-rely on their intuition, they make decisions in a vacuum. Since their gut instinct is so clear and loud, they don’t take the time to loop in the rest of their leadership team--which means the owner misses out on the instincts or data that their team could bring to the table.

If the decision goes sideways, they’re left with a frustrated team on top of a bunch of other headaches.

When owners ignore their intuition, they often miss opportunities–or worse, they overlook threats. While they might recognize the value of their intuition in hindsight, they struggle to act on it with confidence--which often leaves them saying “I told you so!” to themselves. 

It’s critical that business leaders cultivate the skill of knowing when and how to act on their intuition. When leveraged effectively, it can provide an edge that defends against competitors or wards off crisis. 

Today, I want to give you a simple approach to process that quiet voice in the back of your head--so you can decide when and how to turn it into action.

Read: How to Become the Leader Your Business Needs

Turning Gut Feelings Into Confident Insight

We’re about to dive into some questions, but I want to make this essential point: your intuition as a business owner is invaluable.

Whenever you’re receiving advice about your business, you should vet what you’re hearing through your own experience and instincts. My goal is to give you a process to mine your own experience, and help you confidently process “what’s hard to explain”. 

When you are having trouble turning that quiet voice in your head into a clear plan of action, take some time to walk through these simple questions. I think you’ll find that your business gut knows more than your business brain at times. Let’s harness that instinct to its full potential.

1. What’s Triggering Your Gut Feeling?

Your gut sense isn’t some mysterious, immaterial voice that pops up like the narrator in a cheesy thriller novel – “but little did he know…” If it’s popping up, it’s for a reason. Even if it’s on the periphery, that gut feeling is probably nagging you about something (or someone) specific. So your first task is to determine what exactly is setting your gut feeling off?

It might be trying to tell you about:

  • A person that you suspect is having a negative impact on your team and your goals--or maybe they have a specific trait that isn’t being used to its full potential.
  • A threat looming in the distance that you feel you aren’t prepared for. Do you keep getting a bad feeling about something you suspect is a crack in your company’s armor?
  • A specific strategy pivot you feel you should be acting on, but aren’t. It could be marketing and sales. It could be adding a revenue stream. What specific possibilities keep coming up on your radar, but keep getting punted?

Sometimes, your gut feelings are like an undertow you can’t see but that keeps pulling in the same direction. If you can nail down the “what”, you’ll be in a MUCH stronger position to grasp the more important “now what?”

2. Is Your Gut Feeling Reminding You of an Experience?

There’s a trope in almost every spy movie when the agent sees one of the bad guys and immediately gets an uneasy feeling (even though they’ve seemingly never met). As it always turns out, it was some small detail he recognized that linked this new unsavory character to some sinister organization and… well, you can probably guess the rest.

My point? Gut feelings are informed by your previous experiences--good and bad. 

Sometimes you need more experience than your own. Have you ever thought about a coach?

For owners who over-rely on their gut instincts, the danger is assuming that what happened “back then” is repeating now. The result is that they jump to a solution which may not align to the actual problem they’re facing. 

For owners who struggle to tune into their instincts, they may bypass their valuable past experiences and repeat the same mistakes as before--because they aren’t pausing for reflection.

Like our spy friend, taking time to explore what your gut feeling is linked to can be a key to turning your hunch into useful information and action. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you differentiate what happened then from what’s happening now.


  • What aspects of this situation are similar to past experiences? It might be a person (or kind of person). It might be a risk or vulnerability--or an opportunity. Look back and think about what aspects of your past circumstances had the biggest impact on the outcome you experienced, good or bad.
  • What aspects are different about this situation? We can be quick to say, “It’s just like last time,” but every situation is likely to have its own unique ingredients. Don’t assume that because something feels familiar that it is the same. 
  • What details matter most in the here and now? While comparing the differences, pinpoint the most critical details. In a lot of cases, making the right decision comes down to saying, “It didn’t work last time because we were missing ____.” Or “It would have worked last time but _____ knocked us off track.” 

 If you can zero in on the critical elements of your hunch, you can identify the details that make or break your decision making.

3. Turning Your Hunch Into an Effective Plan

Let’s say at this point you’ve turned that enigma of a gut feeling into clear, understandable insight. Now it’s time to decide if and how you’ll take action on that insight. Here are 3 things I always recommend you do to capitalize on what you’ve gleaned.

Document Your Insight

Use the above questions as your launch pad to process what your instinct is telling you--preferably as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I think some of my best ideas have escaped reality because I simply didn’t write them down...

Now, you don’t have to write every painstaking thought down on a legal pad, but one way or another, document the most important pieces of information, whether on a cloud platform like Google Docs, OneNote, or dictating straight into a voice memo on your phone. 

By going through this process, you’ll probably come to realize whether or not your instincts are spot-on for the current situation--and whether they’re worth acting upon. Even if you decide not to act on it, documenting your thoughts for future reference can keep your moments of clarity from going to waste.

Invite Others to Collaborate

Next, bring your ideas to your team or a trusted advisor. It can be easy to not collaborate when it comes to hunches because they’re hard to explain at times--but now that you’ve clearly documented what you’re thinking, invite others to interact with it.

Effective leaders know that they aren’t the only ones with particularly insightful gut feelings. Your role isn’t just to craft a vision from your hunches - it’s to help your team members do the same.

Your ability to create space for your team to contribute their own intuition can make a world of difference in providing perspective and insight that your business needs.

Empower Your Team with Clear Direction

Finally, once you and your team have processed your ideas, you can decide how to take action. Being a successful leader often hinges on your ability to provide clear vision and directions for your team. Without it, your team will struggle to support the vision you have in mind. But when you can create clarity, your team knows what your big picture looks like and can follow along. You’re free to continue developing the vision you’re casting for your company.