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How To Know If You Can Trust Your Gut Instinct As a Leader

You have a gut instinct about almost everything that comes across your radar.

Before you even say anything out loud, often you have an intuitive sense of whether you should move ahead or not, whether you should jump in or step back, or whether someone is trustworthy or not.

The question is, how do you know if you can trust your gut reaction as a leader?

For me personally, that’s been an interesting journey. I trusted my gut a lot in the early days of leadership, and it paid off. Our church grew. The mission moved forward. It was an incredible journey.

But sometimes I trusted my gut so much I excluded other people from the process of decision making. I would often find myself saying things like “I don’t know why…I just know. This is what we should do.”

As I matured as a leader, I learned to check my gut instinct with more prayer, discussion, discernment and input from others. So much so that I almost forgot about my gut instinct in many situations.

There’s wisdom in that, for sure. But sometimes I would look back on a situation and think “I wish we would have just gone for it/avoided that” because I knew, deep down, my gut would have taken us in a different direction.

Over the last few years I’ve tried to pay more attention to my gut instinct AND value team input around me. Not an easy feat.

But back to the original question…as a leader, how can you know when you should trust your gut reaction? Your gut isn’t always reliable, is it?

Here are 5 questions I’m learning to ask to help with that. gut reaction

1. Has my intuition been reliable in the past?

If you’ve led (or lived) for any length of time, your gut has a track record.

Have your impulsive reactions usually led you and others around you to a great place or into danger?

If your impulses lead you into a series of speeding tickets, debt or reckless decisions that hurt people…your gut instinct probably isn’t that reliable. If it leads you to slow down for safety’s sake, walk away and think about it or to care about how other people feel…well, those are better instincts.

Take a look at the track record of instinctive personal and leadership decisions you’ve made: are you and the people around you better or worse off because of them?

You might discover that your track record in certain areas (like personnel) is stellar but in other areas (say finance) your gut is too conservative or too risky.

Once you understand the patterns, you’ll be better able to know when to trust your intuition and when to check it.

Your past patterns are a great indicator of your future success (and failure). Wisdom remembers that.

2. Is my gut reaction consistent or inconsistent with scripture?

Just because you have a track record of success doesn’t mean you’re being faithful.

After all, there are successful criminals at work in your city who have a stellar track record of never being caught.

We’re all fallen, and that means sometimes our impulses lead us toward Christ and sometimes they lead us away from Christ.

As you develop a filter around your impulses you’ll begin to see which natural reactions you have are consistent with Scripture and which ones you should immediately dismiss.

For example, a friend told me years ago that I suffer fools lightly. What he meant was if I don’t like the way someone leads, I distance myself very quickly.

That can be a good thing (it helps me build a better team). But it’s also a bad thing because what it usually means in the short term is that I lack grace for that person. That’s actually sinful.

Everyone bears the image of God and I need to treat them that way.

So I have had to learn to check my impulses in this area because I’m a Christian and I’ve learned to extend grace to people I may not fully respect.

In the same way, you need to check your gut instincts through the lens of scripture to see which lead you and others closer to Christ and which lead you further away.

3. What are the implications of my actions?

Because gut instincts are, well, gut instincts, the initial temptation is to just run with them.

But even taking a few moments to think about where the dominoes will land once you put the first one in motion is a wise thing to do.

If your gut reaction is reliable, thinking through the implications will show you how things will become better. Conversely, thinking through a gut reaction that isn’t helpful will avoid danger.

If you’re an impulsive person, thinking through the implications of your action is a necessity.

I’m an impulsive person and I’ve learned this the hard way.

Conversely, if you overthink issues, you will be prone to non-action which has its own set of implications that you might miss.

Not acting is often as deadly as acting impulsively. And many churches are legendary for not acting.

So think through the consequences of your action or non-action. It can only help to do that.

4. Ask yourself, “Five years from now, what will I wish I had done?”

Okay, that’s a lot of verb tenses in one question, but I love this question.

This has become one of my favourite questions to ask when I don’t know what I should do or what our team should do.

It’s a particularly helpful question for leaders who overthink issues. It’s easy to get into a state of paralysis of analysis when you have multiple voices weighing into a conversation or when you’ve been thinking about something for a long time.

So just ask yourself…”Five years from now, what will I wish I had done?”

Often, asking that question clears away the fog and you know, you just know, what you’ll wish you would have done.

Asking that question has led me to make some life changing decisions about everything from diet and exercise, to starting new things, to staying at something longer than I wanted to.  I love that question so much I spent an entire post unpacking it here.

So, when in doubt, ask yourself “Five years from now, what will I wish I had done?”

5. What are other people’s gut instincts?

Sometimes you get so far into a meeting or series of meetings on an issue that people are drowning in confusion. You can barely remember what you were talking about.

As a leader, that’s a great opportunity.

Here’s what you can do.: Reframe the question as clearly as you can state it and then say:

“I know we’ve talked about this a lot, but what’s your gut instinct: do is or not do it? Everyone weigh in, one by one. One word answer only: yes or no.”

Then go around the room and get everyone to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Sometimes I’ll go back around and ask for a one sentence reason why they answered yes or no. Just one sentence. Not a paragraph. Not an essay.

I’ll look for something as simple as “I say yes, because if we don’t do it, who will?”

And that’s it.

This can be tremendously clarifying. And it can cut through hours/days of discussion, considerations and meetings with surprisingly efficiency.

If most people’s gut reactions line up in the same direction (and they’re consistent with scripture), that can be a great sign.

And if you’re wrong, at least you were wrong together.

How Do You Know?

What are you learning on this issue?

How do you know if you can trust your gut?

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  • jonperrin

    Great post, Carey! I love point #4… it really brings clarity. And point #5 brings ownership.

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  • Great post, Carey with more good insight. I love the question, “Five years from now, what will I wish I had done?” That is one is getting printed out and going up on my office wall somewhere so I don’t forget it.

    My gut is what I often use to get the conversation started about what’s next for our church. I bring decisions and issues to the table for discussion. There’s great wisdom in counselors, but what I find is that someone has to make the decision sometimes. Wise counsel is wonderful…but conversation can be the enemy of action sometimes and it seems it is up to the leader to say, “Let’s move this direction.”

  • Chuck

    How can “gut instinct” trump Scripture? Proverbs 3:6 practically says don’t do that. (….not on your own understanding). Proverbs abounds in verses concerning the merits of wise counsel (Proc 11 and 15 are blunt…). I acknowledged that you address this in your second point but wouldn’t the two-nie stop right there?

    I actually struggle with this myself. Your thoughts good sir?