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Using Intelligence and Intuition as a Public Servant Leader

Servant Leadership

Have you ever considered the competing roles of intelligence and intuition as it relates to how you act as a servant leader in the public sector?

Intelligence is important for us to get what we need to get accomplished. In fact, research supports that intelligence is the single most important factor determining workplace success.

Intelligence is simply one's ability to apply reasoning and critical thinking to solve problems. It is important for success because without it you will spend your time pretty inefficiently. In our executive recruitment practice, we consistently advise our clients on the importance of hiring someone with a reasonably high level of intelligence for management positions. In fact, we have even branded our recruitment service SmartSearch.

What sometimes gets lost is that intelligence is really nothing more than our ability to aggregate facts and from those facts navigate appropriately to get to the desired destination. Intelligence is our GPS system. Sometimes the facts to be navigated are policies or laws. Other times, they are the local politics that we must deal with. Our facts are quite often the "best practices" that we have seen around us.

How Intuition is Important

I recently needed to replace the battery in my car, so I asked Siri to help me find a local auto parts store. In less than a second, Siri dutifully showed me the way to a parts store just 1,127 miles away. I'm sure that my intelligent GPS system found me the most efficient route, dodging construction zones and tolls along the way. Siri failed, however, to second-guess why I would want to travel for 20 hours to a parts store. As intelligent as a good GPS system is, it lacks any semblance of intuition.

And that is really the point here. We become can so enamored with intelligence we often lose sight of the value of intuition. To take some liberty with an old proverb, "If you don't know where you are going, the intelligent road is sure to get you there really fast."

Intuition resides in the more creative portion of the brain. Intuition is where love, joy, hope, aspiration, faith, compassion and belief lives. We need to learn to trust our intuition to set our destination and then apply our intelligence to help us get there efficiently. The intuition of a humble leader will not misguide them.

The goal of a servant leader in our public institutions, then, is to help cultivate humility and allow a trust of intuition in other public servants alongside us. We have an abundance of smart people in local government. In fact, most of the smartest people I know work for cities. Talented problem solvers are naturally drawn to working on the kind of complex issues you only get to explore when working in governments.

However, the microscope that is currently focused so intently on public appearance of every action and decision causes public servants to mistrust their intuition far too often. In most organizations, you simply cannot justify a decision because you are trusting your intuition. You will get skewered in the court of public opinion for wasting taxpayer money on a gut feeling.

What to do?

If we are supposed to trust our intuition but do not have the flexibility to act on it, what good is this article?

First, question (but don't fear) your intuition.

Is it coming from a place of humility and service to others or is it coming from ego, self-preservation, or arrogance? A good place to start is to use Robert Greenleaf's "Best Test". In 1970, Greenleaf suggested that the best test he was able to come up with regarding the application of servant leadership was this three-pronged assessment:

  1. Do those served grow as persons?

  2. Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants?

  3. What is the effect on the least privileged in society - will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

Second, don't use your intelligence as a crutch.

Employ your intelligence only after you have figured out where you want it to take you. Spend the time and energy to delay coming up with a solution until you fully understand the nature of the problem.

Finally, invite others to participate.

Surround yourself with others that are wanting and willing to be critical of your process without being critical of your person. Commit to seeking out other servant leaders and confide in them where you believe your intuition is guiding you. Once you have tested your intuition among others and have the conviction that your intuition is coming from a heart of servant leadership, trust it, it will not lead you astray.

Notice that I did not say that the others need to agree with your intuition. Your intuition is your God-given gift, and others may not fully appreciate it. Trusted advisors can, however, help you sort through your true motives.

Follow this advice and the worst possible outcome is that you did the right thing for the right reasons, but because of some circumstance or miscalculation, it ended up not as successful as you had hoped. While it is possible that this may still be considered a "failure", you, your organization and your community must consider whether they would rather accept some level of setbacks on the road to the right place or a very efficient path to the wrong place.

On that note, it is critical that you are also personally willing to accept these setbacks so long as you did the right things for the right reasons. Let's be honest, it might cost you your job in the current political environment. I know and work with a lot of City Managers, which can be translated as I know lots of people who have lost their job at some point. Those that are convicted that they acted according to their sincere intuition in spite of the immediate outcome have always gone on to greater success. Always. Every time.

To learn more about the Center for Public Servant Leadership and on how to equip the people in your public service organization with the skills to be servant leaders, please contact Jason Gray at 972-885-6472 or

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