Do you make decisions on instinct or fear?

“How do you tell when your gut is telling you that something isn’t right for you versus when it is imposter syndrome holding your back?”[1]

In a June 2022 Forbes article titled HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FEAR AND INTUTION, Melody Wilding asked compares intuition to an internal traffic light. She explains that fear slows you down, and intuition cautions you to stop: “when a situation isn’t good for you or you’re not ready, or giving you a green go-ahead to move at full speed when something is right.”

Intuition is often compared to instinct. Instinct, which scientists now confirm is linked to the gut/brain connection, is a primal survival mechanism often serving as a warning against danger. In my book MOVING ON BY! HARNESSING MY SLED DOG TEAMS INSTINCT TO WIN I tell the story about how a friend, a professional musher, offered to ‘loan’ me her team for a season. Her concern was the health and fitness of her dogs during the months ahead while she was pregnant and couldn’t work with them as they deserved to exercise.

When do you call on instinct or wisdom?

My instincts challenged my ability to move from a fun team of my own big, beautiful, and slow Alaskan Malamute team to her fast and well-trained team of Alaskan Huskies, each weighing half of one Malamute. I was experiencing what scientists recognize as “signals from the gut reaching the brain that have an impact on affect, emotion, and cognition including beliefs and decision-making.”[2]

Intuition made me feel like an imposter. I was not a musher, I was experimenting with the sport for my physical exercise, to enjoy my dogs, and for the exhilarating experience of being on the trail with my team.

‘Intuition tends to be most useful when analytical thinking alone isn’t enough. Research shows that for big life decisions, such as choosing where to live or what type of job to take, people are far happier and more satisfied when they make intuitive choices.”[4]

What is behind your intuition?

Do we call upon our wisdom intuitively to understand the situation and rely on our instinct to move us to take necessary action?

The textbook definition of Wisdom is “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.”  The National Institute of Health (NIH) researched ‘wisdom,’ quoting studies that offer a wide interpretation of the process:

Wisdom may be defined as a complex human trait with several specific components: Social decision-making, emotion regulation, prosocial behaviors, self-reflection, acceptance of uncertainty, decisiveness, and spirituality.” ((Jueste & Lee) 2019[1]

These traits inspire action.  Using dog sledding as an example, how can we apply our wisdom promptly in a survival situation? What enables us to secure alliances to minimize or avoid physical or mental distress and what could prevent us from obtaining much-needed support?

A Wise Leader Knows

Every leader’s primary task is to support others’ growth and development. Openly sharing their story and history begins the process by establishing trust and rapport. Recognizing the ‘wisdom’ of experience requires understanding the situation or environment in which we apply our knowledge. Those situations are trail markers.

A trail marker is a confluence of your experiences, ideas, motivations, values, and desires flowing together to form your personal trail.”[2]

You may encounter a trail marker at a crossroad, so you can choose which trail to explore. While indecision halts progress, making a choice is accepting the risk of change  —  including the possibility of making a poor decision or traveling the wrong trail.

“Wisdom includes emotional regulation, knowing what’s important, moral reasoning,  compassion, humility, altruism, patience, and dealing with uncertainty.” (Hall 2010)[3]

Real people, the heroes in the MOVING ON BY! case studies, survive difficult, confusing, and possibly derailing life/work situations.  A wise leader thoughtfully considers the adventures of others to gain a broader perspective and greater insight preparing us to transition to our unique future. We evaluate the risk of our decisions and actions: some choices will derail us, and others will uncover opportunities that open unexpected new trails.

As we learn from our leaders, we emulate them. They are our role models and mentors, guiding us through a phase of our lives. We are the legacy of those we follow: by developing us, they leave behind talented individuals prepared to take the next step, accept risk, and work to achieve a goal. In turn, we will develop future leaders who will continue to move us forward.

Insights from subject matter experts provide challenging perspectives on the critique of various human responses to pressure situations. To apply wisdom, we must share our stories to connect with others; we cannot survive or succeed in a void.


In humans, scientists describe instinct as part of the” bidirectional communication network between gut and brain,” providing “a neurobiological frame to explain emotions, beliefs, judgments, and decisions under the influence of signals from the gut. “(Mayer et al., 2022)[4]

This framework of emotions, beliefs, and judgments reflects the connection between wisdom and instinct. When faced with a situation that requires immediate action, we may recall both positive and negative events: relevant learning experiences that provide context for an immediate response.

Wisdom is an accumulation of experiences and insight. Instinct is the application of the signals from our brain and gut reminding us of our history and predispositions.


Instinctual leaders dare to take risks based on personal experience.

  By trusting our instinctual reaction and a call to action, we learn to apply our wisdom and instinctually identify options from our history that are relevant to current situations.  Utilizing our experience enables us to expand our vision, test our knowledge, channel our energies, and achieve our goals.

Analogies studying dog sledding adventures offer a unique perspective.  Events on a snow-covered trail in rough, isolated terrain require on-the-spot decisions. It is an environment of unknown, hidden obstacles. Unable to call upon others as resources, mushers look to their dogs. Our dog team can sense the environment, warn us of obstacles ahead, and listen to what is beyond our hearing.

As mushers, we are dog team drivers and instinctual leaders, ready to call upon our wisdom tested and gained from experience. We watch the direction of each dog’s ears, how they turn their heads, the twitch of their tails, and the hair on their backs as they respond instinctively to sounds and sights beyond our reach. Their movements provide clues for us to interpret. We apply our wisdom and react with instinct.

When we are not on the trail, when we don’t have dogs with us to serve as an early warning system, what do we do, how do we prepare for unanticipated intrusions?  Once again, our survival instinct demands that we function as a team.  Our relationship with others, support systems, and networks, keep us connected and provide necessary links to personal and professional resources.

An instinctual leader exhibits “… a balance between active agency and passivity and the acceptance of finding oneself in a difficult situation and recognizing one’s moral responsibilities.” (Nayak 2016)[5]

The tales of mushers and dogs to secure physical safety are examples of instinctual reactions to events. Each exploit in a harsh environment explores a pearl of instinctual wisdom to take action.  “ON BY!” is the dog sledding command guiding the team to leave the hard-packed, known trail, to move to unknown, sometimes dangerous territory to pass the team ahead.

The key to an instinctual leader’s success is the ability to react to the instinctual response trusting the wisdom of the command. HARNESSING the INSTINCT exposes the full story:  taking the initiative, ignoring risk, and moving “ON BY!” obstacles reveal your trail markers,  self-confidence, and commitment to winning.


Our instincts lead us to seek like-minded people,  unite as a team, and work in unison sharing the trail.

Forming connections is critical to avoiding or overcoming the debilitating and destructive outcome of loneliness.  Case studies expand our view by offering examples of why we seek work/life harmony. A story of disappointment or misdirection reminds us to embrace all we value. Tales of overcoming fear bolster our commitment to accept risk while finding the courage to move ‘ON BY!’ obstacles as we transition to our future. Having the confidence to share your story reveals your pride and vulnerability.

“Wisdom is deep accurate insight and understanding of oneself and the central existential issues of life, plus skillful benevolent responsiveness.” (Walsh 2015)[6]

Incorporating dog sledding in a book on leadership and teamwork is an effective metaphor to describe how we apply our survival instinct by choosing leaders and working in teams.  Of course, beyond survival, animals also have an instinct for fun and will initiate play for their joy; being on a team provides easy access to people who want to be involved in similar activities.  Observing responses to shared situations makes us aware of other’s perspectives and values that form the basis for a trusting relationship.

Banding together for safety and accomplishing a difficult task requires relinquishing some of our autonomy. Because we are no longer the sole decision-maker we have learned to also rely on the wisdom and instincts of others. How we choose our leaders and what criteria we employ to determine who we will follow often leads to comparing our experiences — our wisdom and instinct – with those of potential leaders.  We make decisions by attempting to review their past, uncover current initiatives, and seek to understand their vision of the future: See the Three Phases of Self-Coaching in MOVING ON BY!

Take the risk – change opens the door to future transitions

It was a self-coaching opportunity. No one could tell me what the ‘right’ decision was. I knew that my friend trusted me and I trusted her judgment. In my heart, I knew that I could help a friend and open new and unknown trails for me. Running a professional team provided experiences I could not have obtained in any other way.

Check out “Moving On By Harnessing My Sled Dog Team’s Instinct to Win”- Post your review on AMAZON – we all need feedback!

1]National Library of Medicine,Prosocial%

[2] Lucille Maddalena, MOVING ON BY! HARNESSING MY SLED DOG TEAM’S INSTINCT TO WIN. Jones Media, 2014.

[3] Ibid


[5] Idem. National Library of Medicine.

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