Your Instinct is Your Greatest Tool

It takes instinct, and the ability to challenge conventional wisdom, to successfully navigate our complex world.

In the course of promoting my latest book, Instinct: The Power to Unleash Your Inborn Drive, no matter the geographical, economic or sociological makeup of the audience gathered at my book signings or the predisposition of press interviewing me, one question comes up consistently: “What are instincts and how do I apply them?”

Instinct, for the purposes of the book, is defined as an innate inclination that is natural to all beings. It’s that thing that gets you up in the morning, that makes you tick — and like your DNA, it is what makes you unlike anyone else.

Instinct is that inborn force that inclines sea turtles hatched on dry land to crawl toward the surf immediately upon birth. In the human expression, it is the internal guidance system that led running coach Bill Bowerman to co-found Nike via his relentless quest to boost his runners’ timing by improving the weight and construction of the shoe using a waffle iron. It’s what prompted Oprah Winfrey to relocate to Chicago, a market then dominated by Talk Show King Phil Donahue, and Ted Turner to launch a global 24/7 cable news service when there was seemingly no demand for such an unproven concept.

Instincts define who you are at your core — it is your make-up, who you are unfiltered and unplugged.

I first learned the power of instinct while on safari in South Africa a few years ago. After having spoken on faith and finance at the invitation of a group of post-Apartheid black billionaires, I was afforded a trip into the wilds with a promise of seeing, among other animals, the magnificent elephant.


Seated next to a zoologist, I was regaled for hours as the daylight ebbed into evening with all types of fascinating information about the terrain delivered in exacting ethological detail — without ever having laid eyes on the pachyderm. Joining the adventure deep into the night was a stoic, rifle-strapped Zulu dangling from the Jeep’s edge who broke his silence at last with the much anticipated proclamation: “The elephant is ova dere!”

In that moment of joy and elation at finally glimpsing the large and glorious creatures, I suddenly found myself in the most curious circumstance.

I realized that I was sitting in between instinct (represented by the Zulu) and intellect (the zoologist). It became crystal clear that while data can explain all of the features of the elephant in its natural habitat, it took instinct to find it. Instinct can deliver what the intellect is able to explain.

Instinct juxtaposed against intellect became the metaphor that would direct how I was to position my life and career from that time forward.

I understood instantly that as a leader I needed to surround myself with those individuals who used their God-given, instinctive, internal compasses to implement those plans crafted by intellect. Such individuals can move an organization forward in unprecedented and unexpected ways.

Discovering instinctive talent is about zeroing in on the intangibles not found on the pristine pages of the curriculum vitae. I find résumés to be insufficient predictors for how key hires will flourish within my leadership regime. A two-dimensional encapsulation of her accomplishments articulated in the most glowing terms cannot tell me whether she will be a good cultural fit, play well with others, or perform well under pressure.

I handcraft the team for the task at hand.


 Operating out of instinct allows the human dimension to inform the intellect, thereby allowing me to supersede the accepted norms of human resource development. By fishing from uncommon streams, I am able to identify supremely talented individuals that don’t always fit the profile.

In my organization, I call this “talented tenth” my Ninjas — super agents that reflect the rhythm of the operation and whom I trust to carry out the mission. These operatives are the stewards of the brand as well as the watchmen on the wall.

All too often, top grade talent is submerged within the viscera of the corporate organizational chart that obscures priceless jewels in a morass of titles. The value of these gems may also be diminished by autocratic managers that suppress rather than celebrate their many facets.

Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.”

It was the great thinker Aristotle who first recognized that all human achievement is animated by purpose. For the CEO, helping instinctive individuals to identify and then activate their purpose is an investment that pays residual returns.

Yet, it takes courage to buck conventional wisdom. You must be willing to view human capital through non-traditional lenses.

As I continue to meet fans, followers and media at book signing and at lectures, I am asked the second most popular question: “How do I navigate through jungles as diverse as the conservative ecclesiastic, liberal entertainment, and intellectual publishing worlds?” My answer is simple: the power of instinct.

Unleashing the power of instinct in the workplace allows iconoclastic leaders to reignite the organization with renewed people, passion, purpose, and vision.

Image via Shutterstock.

T.D. Jakes
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