The Next Faithful Step

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Cultivated Instincts

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

Leadership is a cultivated instinct. At first glance, the phrase “cultivated instinct” seems like a contradiction in terms. We normally think of instincts as coming at birth. Baby birds peck their way out of the egg and then open their beaks to the sky. No one told them that the Mommy Bird would then place wormy morsels in their mouths. In fact, they likely don’t really understand the concept of eating. They simply have the animal instinct. They open their mouths and they survive. That’s normally how we talk about instinct. But it’s not the only way we describe it.

Let me ask you this. Were you born knowing how to drive a car? Of course not. None of us were. But how many of us can now drive while listening to the radio or carrying on a conversation with our kids or making a mental grocery list—or all three at the same time? We do it instinctively. Let me illustrate what I mean. Here in California, freeways are a part of life. I ask my students to picture themselves driving on the freeway and they can all place themselves there instantly. Then I ask them to picture themselves in rush hour traffic (another California constant) that is moving at, say, thirty miles per hour because there are so many other cars. Again, they have no problem picturing that. Then I say, as you are meandering along in sluggish traffic, a cop pulls onto the freeway. And I ask them, what do you do? Immediately, they answer, “We slow down.” And then everyone laughs. We laugh because there is no threat of a speeding ticket when you are going thirty miles an hour on the freeway. But we are so used to exceeding the speed limit that we all instinctively slow down when we see a cop. It’s as if the eyes communicate directly to the foot and the foot comes off the gas pedal before the brain even gets involved. Learning to lead is like learning to drive. It is a cultivated instinct. It is cultivated because no one was born knowing how to drive. But it is an instinct because experienced leaders are able to act without conscious thought.  

Or perhaps a better way to talk about cultivated instincts is to think about Maria the Nurse. My sister-in-law heard me use this term “cultivated instincts” and she immediately recognized herself and the other nurses she works with every day. Take, for example, Maria. Maria is an Intensive Care Nurse. One day a patient walked into the ICU and bantered with the nurses who put her into the bed. That is odd because most patients don’t usually walk into the ICU; they are wheeled in with tubes attached and monitors humming. So you and I (that is, those of us without cultivated instincts) would think that Maria’s friendly patient was a candidate for being least worrisome ICU patient of the day. But that’s not what Maria thought. She instinctively ignored the banter and looked at the pallor of her skin and the gloss of her eyes. Maria did not really know she was doing it. It was the years of ICU nursing that made her do it. And what Maria saw worried her. Maria knew that this patient was likely to get really sick really soon. And she got to work preparing for what others could not see coming. And the tragic part of this story is that Maria was right. Within a day, her patient had died. The sepsis had set in too far by the time she walked into ICU. Maria’s instincts told her what novices could not see. She had cultivated instincts.

There is a common theme between the two examples—learning to drive and being a nurse. Cultivated instincts teach us what we must notice and what we can safely ignore. When I was first learning to drive, I was most afraid of the row of cars parked on the side of the road. I was sure that one of them would jump out in front of me when I least expected it. So I drove with my head cocked toward the side of the road. I had not yet learned that the bigger issue was the Buick in front of me. I also thought I had to read every sign. I gave equal attention to “Do Not Enter Wrong Way” and “Lost Cat, REWARD.”  Over time, I learned to give great attention to the Wrong Way sign and filter out the Lost Cat sign. And that turns out to be an important skill because no one can track all the signs. So we learn which data demands our attention and which data we can safely ignore.  That’s why Maria the Nurse ignored her patient’s demeanor (i.e. the laughing and banter) and instead noticed the brown hue in her skin and the film on her eyes. Cultivated instincts filter the vast amount of data streaming at us; they teach us what to notice and what we can safely ignore.

Cultivated instincts do something else as well. They give us positive options. Life often comes so fast that we don’t have time to process all the information. We cannot spend long, leisurely minutes calculating the best course of action. I picture it this way. I think of my brain as being like a pantry shelf. And when I need to take an action, I go to the pantry and look for a pre-made action rather than inventing a new plan based on the needs of this moment. It’s like opening a can of Campbell’s soup rather than concocting a recipe from scratch. An experienced cook may know how to create the soup from scratch, but often lacks the time. So instead she selects the pre-made Campbell’s soup option. This is important because leadership is a series of choices about action. If a leader had to construct every strategy of action from scratch, she would never get anything done. She needs pre-made actions. And cultivated instincts provide positive options. They fill our pantries with avenues for action. 

The question becomes, then, how we learn cultivated instincts. When I was in high school, sophomores learned to drive. We all took two courses. There was Driver’s Education where we learned the rules of the road. And there was Driver’s Training where we sat behind a simulator and learned to embody the lessons we learned in Driver’s Education.  Learning to lead requires both kinds of learning. In the classroom, students learn about leading. They learn what things to notice and what things they can ignore. And in their Internships they attempt to embody what they have learned. But notice that neither class taught me to drive instinctively. They prepared me to get a driver’s license. And that gave me the freedom to spend the hours and hours of practicing behind the wheel that eventually created cultivated instincts. I got my license before I had fully cultivated my driving instincts. And, in like manner, we graduate our students long before they are ready to lead. The coursework and the internship experiences give the student a start. But it is not until they are well into ministry that they develop cultivated instincts.