The Seventh can handle anything it meets.” – George Armstrong Custer

In the early morning hours of June 27, 1876, Brigadier General Alfred Terry cautiously led a column of infantry and cavalry into the valley of the Little Big Horn River in the Montana Territory. Smoke swirled across the rolling hills and the air was rank with the stench of decaying flesh. Debris, dead and wounded animals, discarded possessions, and abandoned lodge poles littered the area. A startled Terry, commander of the Department of the Dakota, had come upon the remnants of the largest gathering of Native Americans ever witnessed on the Great Plains. Then his chief scout reported finding something much more concerning: the bloated, mutilated corpses of more than 200 officers and men of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment.

Historical analysis of the battle typically remains blame focused, categorized as either realist or fatalist. Realists tend to blame the defeat on Custer and his insatiable zeal for glory. Fatalists, on the other hand, place the blame either on Major Marcus Reno for the panicked retreat that left Custer exposed or Captain Frederick Benteen for not coming to Custer’s rescue. Others, as historian Andrew Ward noted, “simply blame the unprecedented and unanticipatable size of the forces arrayed” against the 7th Cavalry.

However, Custer’s demise wasn’t the result of any of those, at least not directly. In fact, the defeat of the 7th Cavalry was inevitable, as sure as the rising of the morning sun over the grassy hills along the Little Big Horn River. While Custer’s ego certainly drove him to make poor decisions throughout his career, he was fundamentally an intuitive leader. And as such, he had long since grown accustomed to making quick decisions in the moment based on pattern recognition. But when those patterns changed—as was the case that fateful day—his intuition failed him, and he and 256 others paid with their lives.

INtuition at Work

Intuition is an essential leadership skill, a key trait that allows us to receive and interpret information instinctively, without any conscious reasoning. It’s not purely instinctual, but it’s not black magic, either. Like any other key leadership attribute, it’s honed through study, practice, and reflection. In a 2014 Fast Company article, William Duggan, the author of Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement, described three levels of intuition used by leaders: basic, expert, and strategic.

Basic, or ordinary, intuition is probably the closest to the purely instinctual “gut feeling” you get about something, that “voice in the back of your head” or “spider sense.” You don’t exactly know where it comes from; it might be right, or it might be wrong. It’s just a sense. You really don’t want to make high-risk decisions relying on just basic intuition.

Expert intuition is rooted in pattern analysis, what Duggan described in his book as “a form of rapid thinking where you jump to a conclusion when you recognize something familiar.” In his 2005 book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell described recognition-primed decision-making, in which rapid-fire decisions are possible through the use of well developed mental models. These models for the basis of much of research psychologist Gary Klein, whose pioneering work in decision-making is underpinned by a deep study of expert intuition.

Strategic intuition, on the other hand, is what you rely on when you don’t recognize patterns, or you lack the developed mental models to support expert intuition. Where basic or expert intuition is a form of emotion—feeling, not thinking, according to Duggan—strategic intuition is the opposite: “it’s thinking, not feeling.” When facing new situations where the patterns are not immediately recognizable, you have to allow your brain the time to make the neural connections necessary to provide reasoned insight.

The Intuition Trap

Expert intuition is the hallmark of many successful leaders, where that innate sense is honed as mental models mature and develop. It fuels increases in self-confidence, comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty, and willingness to take risks. It drives courage of conviction, personal assertiveness, and a willingness—even an eagerness—to draw conclusions and make decisions in the spur of the moment.

In that sense, Duggan continues, “expert intuition can be the enemy of strategic intuition.” As you gain experience and insight, you begin to recognize patterns in similar circumstances, developing the mental models that allow you to make quick decisions and solve problems faster. Among seasoned leaders, expert intuition drives an ability to consistently make qualitatively better decisions faster: faster than their rivals, faster than the situation evolves. “Strategic intuition,” Duggan explains, “requires [that] you recognize when a situation is new and turn off your expert intuition.”

This is the intuition trap. When a new situation presents itself or circumstances are unfamiliar, leaders must possess the humility and discipline to allow for strategic intuition to take root. But as often is the case, hubris and ego—the overwhelming need to make a decision in the heat of the moment—lead us to make poor decisions based on flawed or imperfect mental models, or a misinterpretation of events.

Custer possessed what has often been referred to as “Custer’s luck,” an uncanny ability to always be in the right place at the right time. His decisions were based largely on expert intuition, drawing on his experiences in battle coupled with the audacity and bravado typical of a cavalryman of the period. Judgment errors aside, Custer’s intuition had always served him well in the heat of the battle. Until it didn’t. For a leader like Custer, expert intuition was a fatal flaw.

The confederation gathered in the valley of the Little Big Horn River that day presented something wholly unique, something fundamentally different than Custer had previously encountered. Not just a gathering of historic proportions, but one motivated to fight by a bloody victory over General George Crook a week earlier. Despite the mounting evidence before him, Custer trusted his intuition, as he’d done so many times in the past.

Whether it was his insatiable zeal for glory or simply a flawed instinct for battle, we may never know. But that day, as Custer led his men down into Medicine Tail Coulee toward the Little Big Horn River, he led them into an intuition trap that would cost each and every one of them their lives.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.