Leadership Quality #7: Discernment – Put an end to Unsolved Mysteries

Smart leaders believe only half of what they hear. Discerning leaders know which half to believe.

Discernment can be described as the ability to find the root of the matter, and it relies on intuition as well as rational thought. Effective leaders need discernment, although even good leaders don’t display it all the time. Enjoy a smile as you read these comments from well-known leaders, which could be considered ‘famous last words’.

“I think there is a world market for about five computers” – Thomas J Watson, Chairman of IBM (1943)

“I tell you Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad soldiers; we will settle the matter by lunch time” – Napoleon at breakfast with his generals preceding the battle of Waterloo (1815)

Discernment is an indispensable quality for any leader who desires to maximise effectiveness. It helps to do several important things:

  1. Discover the root issues – Leaders must cope with tremendous chaos and complexity every day. They are never able to gather enough information to get a complete picture of just about anything. As a result, they have to rely on discernment. Organisational effectiveness does not lie in that narrow-minded concept called rationality. It lies in the blend of clear headed logic and powerful intuition. Discernment enables a leader to see a partial picture, fill in the missing pieces intuitively and find the real heart of the matter. I believe this is where women can provide real power in the world, bringing their intuition to the party. The question remains – are they valued for that to the degree they could be?
  2. Enhance your problem solving – If you can see the root issue of a problem, can you solve it? The closer a leader is to their zone of genius, the stronger their intuition and ability to see root causes. If you want to tap into your discernment potential, work in your areas of strength. And make the best use of your team in their areas of strength!
  3. Evaluate your options for maximum impact“Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe it’s enough” (Robert Heller). Discernment isn’t relying on intuition alone, nor is it relying only on intellect. Discernment enables you to use both your gut and your head to find the best option for your people and your organisation.
  4. Multiply your opportunities – People who lack discernment are seldom in the right place at the right time. Although great leaders often appear to be lucky, it’s more a case of making your own ‘luck’ as a result of discernment, that willingness to use their experiences and follow their instincts.


Are you a discerning leader? When faced with complex issues, can you readily identify the heart of the matter? Are you able to see the root causes of difficult problems without having to get every bit of information? Do you trust your intuition and rely on it as much as your intellect and experience? If not, you need to cultivate it. Value non-traditional thinking. Embrace change, ambiguity and uncertainty. Broaden your horizons experientially. Your intuition will only increase with use.

To improve your discernment, do the following:

  • Analyse past successes  – If you’ve worked with me you will know at some point I’ve asked you, "What is the source of your success?" Look at some problems you solved successfully in the past. What was the root issue in each problem? What enabled you to succeed? If you can capture the heart of the matter in a few words, you can probably learn to do it with future issues.
  • Learn how others think – Which great leaders do you admire? Pick some who’s profession or zone of genius is similar to yours and read their biographies. By learning how other discerning leaders think, you can become more discerning.
  • Listen to your ‘gut’  – Recall times when your intuition ‘spoke’ to you and was correct. (You may or may not have listened to it at the time.) What do those experiences have in common? Look for a pattern that may give you insight into your intuitive ability. 

One discernment driven decision can change the entire course of your destiny.

For a long time, the Swiss dominated the world of watch making. In the 1940s they produced 80% of all watches. In the late1960s an inventor presented all the manufacturers with an idea for a new type of watch, they all rejected it. Believing his design had merit, he took it to a company in Japan, Seiko. The design was digital…and digital design soon dominated watch design. In fact, modern youth often no longer wear watches and struggle to tell the time on ‘traditional’ clocks because they rely on their mobile phones to tell the time.

Part 7 of our Leadership Series: Leadership is an Inside Job, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader


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