Knowing Where to Tap

My father’s uncanny sense of intuition and the lesson it taught me

There is a great story about the giant ship with the broken engine. The ship’s owner brought in several repairmen, but no one could get the engine working. Eventually, an old man with years of experience in engine repair was brought in. He looked the engine over, took a hammer from his bag and tapped a spot on the engine … which suddenly roared to life. Later, the ship’s owner got the invoice for the repair with a grand total of $10,000. The owner – completely flummoxed by the large bill – demanded an itemization. The second bill came back stating: Tapping with hammer- $2. Knowing where to tap- $9,998. There is a value gap between effort and experience. Experience builds knowledge, which, after time, grows to become intuition; that wonderful zone where we unconsciously – and very, very quickly – connect the dots in the problem before us with virtually no effort. My father, Clarence Smith Jr., is an intuitive leader and I recently had an opportunity to share with others what he taught me.

During a speech I gave about John Maxwell’s “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” to the local Chamber of Commerce, the primary focus was law number eight – the Law of Intuition. On the subject, Maxwell says “Leaders evaluate everything with a leadership bias.” In other words, leaders have a lens shaped by their intuition (their experience), and it is through this lens they see the world and plan their actions. You may know it as “gut feeling.” Whatever you call it, intuition is a powerful force in leadership and my father had it in abundance.

Maxwell says intuition can be a natural ability or a learned skill. I think it’s fair to say my dad belongs in both camps. He seemed to have natural leadership talent and worked hard honing it starting at age five when his father.

Back then my grandfather, would take my father along for business meetings with his bankers and lawyers. My then five-year-old father watched, listened and soaked up life lessons. Every night at dinner, my grandfather would ask my father “what did you learn today?” I’m not sure he even realized the power of that question, yet in those reflective moments when my grandfather engaged my father, he was directly helping his son develop a powerful sense of intuition (more on reflection later.

By twelve, Dad was working as a water boy at job sites for the family construction business – Diamond Steel Construction – and he got to know the workers. At fifteen, he became one of the workmen and drove trucks. He was promoted to the office at eighteen and, though he tried to go away to college the following year, his father became ill and he had to come back to run the company full time at age 20.

By this time, Dad had 15 years’ worth of experience in our construction company. He was learning … and much of what he learned became firmly wired into his subconscious. The subconscious is millions of times faster processing information than the conscious mind; so, as a result of this constant training and development, my father could quickly and effortlessly assess business situations and act accordingly.

Two years after taking over the company, Dad’s developing sixth sense kicked in and he had a feeling something wasn’t right. He wasn’t involved in bookkeeping and rarely needed to look over the company’s detailed financial records, yet something told him he needed to on this occasion. He did … and it turned out he was right. Someone was stealing from the company. Dad’s intuition led him to the embezzlers and he promptly fired them. Unfortunately, this experience would be repeated a few more times, and each time Dad’s growing intuition guided him to finding the problem and dealing with it as a leader should.

Ultimately, these intuitive moves taught my father one of the most important lessons in his working life; trust your gut, and then surround yourself with competent people you can trust fully. We’ve lived by this in our current family business – Compco Industries – and it has served us very, very well.

If you were to break down my father’s examples of intuition and leadership, you’d find there are three specific and critical steps in developing your intuitive powers.

First, you need to study. Hopefully (for you) your business is your fascination… then you are driven to read, listen, watch and ask questions. Being an active participant in the daily rhythms of any company will help you notice the smallest of details. Soon, you’ll understand their importance.

Next, with respect to Nike’s trademark, you need to just “do it.” Sometimes leaders need to jump into a situation and do something… even if they are not 100% sure their actions are correct. You need to be intentional in your pursuit of intuition. Identify your talent area – that special sub-set of knowledge in which you want to grow intuition – and focus your efforts. Just do it.

Last, you need to reflect – just as Dad did at his father’s dinner table. If you journal, great. If not, perhaps you can talk over your experiences with others or just spend quiet time on your own processing the experience. I found this was what I was doing with my Dad as I talked to him in preparation for my speech. He told me his stories (some I’ve heard before, yet still found new and interesting details in the re-telling) and I spent time reflecting on what they meant to him and what they mean to me now as our company’s leader.

“Study”, “Do” and “Reflect.” That’s how you develop intuition; and intuitive leaders are powerful leaders. Ask anyone who has ever worked for my father. To this day, he still always knows where to tap.