The 'gut instinct' that won Trump the presidency isn't enough to be a great leader, says the former head of the CIA

Donald trumpChris Kleponis/Pool – Getty Images‘Presidential transitions are tough.’

John Brennan’s stint as director of the CIA ended when President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. Since then, Brennan has had a chance to observe and analyse Trump’s behaviour.

Brennan spoke with Business Insider US editor-in-chief Alyson Shontell at an Intersport leadership summit in April, for an episode of Business Insider’s podcast, “Success! How I Did It.” Shontell asked Brennan what he thought of Trump’s leadership so far.

Here’s Brennan:

“Clearly he did a phenomenal job during the campaign, and I feel as though he believes that his natural instincts on these issues, whether it be in business or in campaigning, which have been very successful and can continue to drive him. He is somebody who is a very spontaneous individual. He reacts to his gut.

“A lot of these issues are very, very complex and complicated, and my feeling and impression is that he has had only a very, very limited experience in dealing with these international issues and has very superficial understanding of issues that are very, very complicated, whether it be terrorism or North Korea or Russia, China, you name it — cyber issues. And he really needs to go to school on some of these issues.”

Brennan went on to distinguish between Trump the presidential hopeful and Trump the president:

“The gut instinct, the spontaneity that got him through the election, that’s not sufficient to deal with these issues, and missteps and mistakes on the international front, as well as on the domestic front, really can have very, very damaging locations for the country. And I was hoping that by now we would have seen an adjustment from the candidate Trump to President Trump. But I think he has a certain persona, and I think he feels as though he’s been very successful to date, and so he has continued in that path.

“But to me one of the great marks of good leaders is to understand that what made you successful in this area or in this realm may not necessarily be the same thing that’s going to make you successful at something else. You have to adapt to the realities, to the new responsibilities, to the operating environment that you’re in. Presidential transitions are tough.”

We can break down Brennan’s comments into two key components. First, leaders shouldn’t always rely on their gut instincts.

That idea sounds similar to observations from the neuroscientist David Eagleman and the psychologist Adam Grant. Eagleman has said the brain is lazy, and your first idea is rarely your best.

“The key to innovation is to distrust the first answer [to a question] and to send it back,” Eagleman said. “Send the answer back so you’re getting something else out of that rich network that’s already in there.”

Meanwhile, Grant has found the greatest innovators don’t necessarily come up with better ideas — they just persist long enough to come up with more ideas.

In other words, it’s OK — and usually advisable — to question your gut.

The second component of Brennan’s comments is that what makes you successful in one role won’t necessarily help you succeed in a top leadership role.

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith calls this tendency the “superstition trap.” In his book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” Goldsmith writes: “One of the greatest mistakes of successful people is the assumption, ‘I behave this way, and I achieve results. Therefore, I must be achieving results because I behave this way.’ This belief is sometimes true, but not across the board.”

In Trump’s case, being so spontaneous may have worked — or at least not hurt — on the campaign trail. But according to Brennan, it won’t necessarily help in the White House.

Listen to the whole episode here: 

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