The Gut Check – Kirk vs. Gibbs

If you spend even 5 minutes with me you probably pick up pretty quickly that I’m a total data nerd, maybe bordering on freak. I LOVE data and stats!! (Hey, somebody has to!)   I love it for the same reason I love Math – it doesn’t lie, not in its raw form. When people start trying to spin, “interpret”, or otherwise translate for you what the data says – well, that’s where the shenanigans start. But in its raw, unfiltered form – it’s just the Truth. And I do mean Truth with a capital “T”. It’s blunt, stark, and brutally honest. Sometimes I find validation in that. Sometimes I get a Gibbs back- of-the-head slap (reference NCIS). Either way, it tells me the real deal.

But sometimes, my gut tells me there’s more to the data than what’s on the page. Sometimes, my gut throws a flag on the play and calls for a timeout to review. So what do you do when your gut says one thing, but the conventional wisdom or facts on a page suggest something completely different? How do you know which is the right call?

You don’t. It’s a leap of faith – in yourself.

You put your experience, your knowledge, your mistakes, and your successes in a big mental bowl, stir, and “add seasonings to taste as needed”. THAT’S the expertise part, there.   You’ve been in enough situations, been through enough, that you start to see patterns, guess at outcomes, and anticipate where the situation is going. You pull your mental bowl out, dish up some of your own brand of wisdom, and throw it into the current mix, hoping you’ve guessed right about what it needed to turn out well. Sometimes you’re right. Sometimes, not so much. But you learn from the experience either way and add it back into that mental bowl to make it even richer than it was before.

At least that’s what great leaders – and learners – do.

Two of my favorite characters to watch and learn from in the category of leadership are Captain Kirk from Star Trek and Agent Leroy Gibbs from NCIS. Two vastly different characters and yet both do a lot of relying on their gut when everything is on the line.

In the case of CPT. Kirk, he definitely embraces the idea of “turning into the danger” and being audacious and bold with his responses. His faith in himself and his team borders on the near incredulous and yet his faith is hardly ever misplaced. Things might not always go as planned, but his team is right there with him making it all come out right somehow. His thinking is divergent, and his actions and decisions are frequently swift. But he trusts his gut and it hardly ever steers him wrong. Why is that? Because he trusts in himself. He has faith in his own ability to set everything right – eventually.

Gibbs, on the other hand, is equally open to turning into the danger, but he frequently takes a more covert, methodical approach. He plays his cards close to the vest, but he follows his gut, even when it flies in the face of every other fact and order that he’s been given. Like a hound on the trail of a scent, he never sways from it until he’s run his problem to ground. And his faith in his team’s ability to back his play – and him – is absolutely unshakeable. He believes they will all follow their guts and get it right, so they do.

So how does one develop such a staunch faith in one’s gut? Experience and time.

I know this because I’m finally at a place where I’m seeing it for myself in my own life. I’m coming up on situations that I’m beginning to recognize – it’s not my first rodeo – and I’m drawing on that mental mix to guide my assessment of the situation and determine a response. I’ve succeeded and screwed up enough times to have a feel for the situation now. Part of it is experience, and part of it is trusting my own intuitions and knowledge. In a word, it’s confidence. I’m not always confident I’ve got it completely right, but I’m sure that even if I’m not, I can get there. I can fix it, figure it out, and make it work in the end, even if I initially miscalculated.

So what does this have to do with data?

Well, data is VERY compelling – and it should be. Usually, data tells you the whole story. But sometimes, the data is just downright frustrating. It’s elusive, teasing, and playing a little hide and seek with the whole context. Sometimes, the data leaves you with a cliffhanger decision to make. And that’s where your gut comes in. Your gut knows things that your head hasn’t put words to yet. Your gut is that hound on a scent, that primal guardian that urges you to action without a single reason to base it on – yet.

And there’s the real point. Over the years, when I have found myself in that situation again and again, and my gut wound up being proven right when it urged me one way vs. another, I started trusting and listening to it as I looked at facts and data. Over time, it became my Executive Officer, my right hand in the decision making process. I can only assume that this is the kind of evolution the characters of Kirk and Gibbs have gone through, as well.

So does it matter which “flavor” of gut check we adopt? Not really. What does matter is that we listen – and trust – that part of ourselves that knows more than our minds can express. And as much as I love Mr. Spock, sometimes there is more to be figured into the equation than just the facts and numbers. And they are equally important.

Sometimes, even more.