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Former Mayor Ed Koch on "Why Your Gut Rules Every Time"

In the late 1970s, Mayor Ed Koch transformed himself from an unknown political underdog into one of America’s most illustrious mayors. In just 12 years, he brought the City of New York out of bankruptcy, created a renowned housing program, and became one of the most important players on the American political scene. How did he do it? He shares many of his strategies in a new book, coauthored with Christy Heady, Buzz: How to Create It and Win with It (AMACOM, 2007).

In the following excerpt, adapted from chapter 7 of Buzz: “Why Your Gut Rules Every Time,” Koch explains how to use your powers of intuition to make effective decisions:

When it comes to weighing choices, I have found that my gut response is generally an educated one, because it is based on my experiences of everyday life. Remember, as of this writing, I am 82 years old. That's a lot of experience.

Much research has been reported on how people sometimes use their intuition without the use of a rational process, because they have a "sixth sense." But decision making is a melding of both rationality and intuition. When I was the mayor of New York City, I chose to use more educated information and my intuition in my decision-making process. Generally, relying on the intelligence of experts helped me formulate a decision. But that is only half the equation. The other half required using my instincts to decide which option would be the best one. When I thought I sufficiently understood the matter and felt ready to make a decision, I would clap my hands and say, "Okay, now this is what we are going to do," and I would outline in detail how we were going to move forward.

When you make a decision using your gut instincts, consider asking yourself the following questions, using as much information that you have collected as possible:

  • Which options capture my interest the most?
  • Which options am I able to act on immediately?
  • What further information do I need to make a decision?

Some people use how they physically feel when they receive the answers to questions like those above to tell them which option is best. Others may use their emotions as their intuitive guide by simply "feeling right" about a decision they've been wrestling with.
You will usually get the best and most helpful insight to making a decision if you ask questions that require more than yes-or-no answers. One method that helps to do this is writing information down. This simple action can help you achieve greater success in learning what your gut is trying to tell you. This technique is much like brainstorming.

To keep your gut instincts fine-tuned, keep the following rules in mind:

  • Stay with the work even if it bores you or floors you. Understand that to do your best work you have to possess the facts. Obviously, you should perform further research using your computer or other backup materials if this is necessary. Feel comfortable—don't be afraid—to ask the people around you for their opinion and advice.
  • Changing your mind about a decision is okay, but keep a record of it. It is important to have a record to which you can refer, listing the reasons for that change. That way, your change in position cannot be fairly described as a "flip-flop."
  • Give your intuition a chance to comment. Again, marshal the facts, and when you review your thoughts give your muse—your intuition—the opportunity to speak. It will work almost every time, but not every time. So what! In baseball a .333 batting average is considered outstanding. That is one hit every three times at bat.
  • Do not adopt a position because it is considered safe and politically correct. Have courage to advance a radical position that is rationally presented, especially if you believe in that proposition.
  • This, above all: to thine own self be true. This is the cardinal rule for me. It is taken from William Shakespeare's tragic play Hamlet, when the character Polonius prepares his son Laertes for a long journey abroad and is facing the unknown.

Here is a generic definition of intuition: direct and immediate knowledge that does not come from the rational side of the brain. It tells you what you need to know, and when you need to know it. You can gain vital insight into yourself and your professional world when your instincts are fine-tuned because they are being used.

How I Use and Strengthen My Intuition

  1. Organization. Being organized is extremely helpful. Getting a lot done requires that you be organized so that you can organize others. I believe in the moderately cluttered desk, by which I mean having no more than two moderate-sized piles of papers on the desk: one pile for important papers in terms of priority of your time, and the second pile for items of lesser importance, where a delay in not responding for a week will not adversely affect the outcome or the attitude of those waiting for a response.

  2. Time Management. I am proud of the fact that in addition to my working at Bryan Cave, where I am a member of the regulatory affairs, public policy, and legislative client service group, I have eight other jobs. I get them all done on time, and I am proud of my work product. Allocating your time is an important key to effectiveness. Some people may want to keep time sheets. I prefer relying on my memory and sense of organization to allocate time in a competent way.

  3. Practice, Practice, Practice. When it comes to strengthening my intuition, there is no greater aid than practice: doing what I have described in this chapter, gathering the facts, and letting your muse take over.

If you are having a tough time trusting your gut, consider using one of the following three tests developed by Harvard Business School professors:

  1. The Newspaper Test. If your final decision were to appear on the front page of your local paper in the morning, what would the consequences be?

  2. The Golden Rule Test. Walk a mile in the other person's shoes. How would you feel if your decision were enacted?

  3. The Best Friend Test. Talk with people who know you well and respect you. They will understand your character and how the decision will affect you.

© 2007 Edward I. Koch and Christy Heady. All rights reserved.
Published by AMACOM Books,a Division of the American Management Association

Read a sample chapter from the book.