Is flying by the seat of your pants a skill?


“There is an emerging body of work that suggests that intuition, sometimes known as “gut” instinct or “flying by the seat on one’s pants” is an essential leadership aptitude and/or skill. There is debate about whether this is a learned skill or innate aptitude.

In my experience, it can be taught, but it is most likely both. Some people have personalities and cognitive processing power that suite them for quick decisions, while others simply require time. Making decisions under duress and in short time period can also be an acquired emotional skill. Without practice, if one is thrown into emotional overwhelm, a normally excellent decision maker can revert to the emotional IQ of a hamster.

Generally, however, this “seat of the pants” only appears to be seat of the pants. If the decisions are later “unpacked”, a rationale will be found, sometime quite complex, defying the apparent ad hoc nature of the decision making. Furthermore, those who can consistently reproduce “seat of the pants” and/or intuitive decision-making often have very coherent priorities and value systems.

Hence, much like a very practiced martial art, rather than being ad hoc, the response is a fall-back onto conditioned responses. If that person’s core values and priorities are clear and well-practiced, the quick response can seem effortless. In my experience, decision-making is undervalued. And it is rarely taught. Hence it is either innate or “caught”.

Look at college and graduate school curricula. There is nothing there. It can be taught though. I have been teaching entrepreneurs decision-making for over a decade, in groups, individually and in crisis.

It requires five steps:

Values alignment – Many people are unclear here, about their own values and their own organization’s values. Few people ever take the time to get clear about values. They simply assume they are already clear – kind of like breathing. Similarly, the same exists for many organizations. Putting the two together?– rarely are people and their organizations in coherent value alignment. Hence decision making is difficult, particularly under duress.

Priorities clarification – The same applies here. People don’t take the time and rigor to figure this out. If priorities are in conflict, then how will decisions be?

Emotional reframing – Emotional overwhelm is common during forced decision making events. Sometimes this emotional overwhelm is a negative learned pattern that can be unlearned. Often it is a state that is created by ineffective leadership, culture or negative incentives. Generally, however, it is a disabling perspective that can be reframed to be positively enabling.

Decision making practice – Decision making takes practice. When one has done it 1000 times it’s a piece of cake. I teach my clients how to practice decision making – in all things – every day. It’s important to understand that in most people’s reality, there are few places one can make lots of decisions with setting off lots of scary consequences. So it’s important to create a safe space to learn. It’s tough to start, but after time, what appeared as huge hurdle becomes commonplace. It’s like a martial art though. It takes determination, conditioning and commitment. But the result is worth it. Is makes business, career and life in general better.

Desire – Decision making and procrastination go hand in hand. People are often trained to not have the desire to make decisions, because of potential consequences, uncertainty, fear of judgment, etc.

Once one learns the power of decision-making then procrastination can turn into desire to make decisions. Making people aware of the benefits of becoming a good decision maker can turn a pattern of procrastination into an attitude of empowerment.

The end result is like learning to ride a bike. One never forgets it. Using “seat of the pants” or “Gut instincts” or “intuitive decision making” becomes second nature.”

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