Gut Check Leadership


Some people decide to pursue positions of leadership for the perceived external trappings of the position, but more often than not — at least in the case of the best leaders — leadership is an inside job. A sense of vocation. According to Parker Palmer, “Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself, but that are nonetheless compelling.’”

“Something I can’t not do.” That sentiment has driven many a leader to press forward in the midst of turbulent times. That doesn’t mean the path becomes easy, it means that the leader believes the end goal is worth the effort . . . worth having their intentions judged by individuals sitting in a different chair . . . worth the risk of making difficult choices . . . worth taking actions that fly in the face of “best practice” or popular opinion.

Certainly, leaders make decisions every day that don’t require this level of “gut check” consideration, but if you lead for very long, that day will come. What is a gut check consideration? It is a test of a person’s resolve, commitment, or priorities regarding a particular course of action. Are you going listen to your gut, or all the voices “out there” with easier, ready-made solutions? It is easy to say “theoretically” how you would respond, but it can be oh so difficult when you are in the midst of the challenge. So how should you approach a gut-check situation?

  1. Listen to others. Not just to the loudest voices. Not just to those who support your thinking. Not just to the “experts” or most popular opinions. Listen to those who disagree, and listen with a desire to understand rather than defend. Listen respectfully and with curiosity. Listen to those closest to the challenge, who may rarely be asked for input.
  2. Take time to reflect. Fast thinking is intuitive and emotional. Slow thinking is more deliberative and logical. Without taking the time to reflect, it is easy to jump from A to C or D . . . to make assumptions about why someone is behaving in a particular way. Reflection may cause you to revise your thinking, or it may reinforce your beliefs, but it is always time well spent.
  3. Listen to your gut. In my experience, it is usually smarter than your head. Oh, your head may try to reason with it, but that still small voice can be pretty persistent. And if you have taken the time to listen to others and reflect, you probably know the answer before you even get to this point. Chances are you were just hoping to find an easier answer.

The more challenging the times, the more important it is to have leaders willing to dig deep inside, to respond to that still small voice urging you to do the hard thing on behalf of a great cause. Is this your time? Listen to your gut.

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