Often in life, we ask a series of friends and family for advice when making a tough decision, but in the end the best advice is what our heart tells us to do. In business, too, many CEOs have made some very difficult calls based largely on their gut instinct.

Leaders today have more data and business intelligence at their fingertips than ever before and can use those insights to weigh trends, opportunities and possible solutions to problems. While data is incredibly important, one of the biggest factors in success for entrepreneurs is the ability to tap into their instinct and intuition. And yet, too often today, we don't use our instincts enough or know how to listen to it.

Here are steps leaders can take to better tap into their instincts and intuition, while also leveraging data to help drive decision making.

1. Practice mindfulness.

Too often people do what they have to do and not what they want to do. Part of listening to your instinct is slowing down to ask the right questions. What is your intent, desired focus and long term vision for your business and how do those priorities map to the decisions you're making?

Mindfulness can help in being proactive and identifying when a decision should be made, and avoiding commitment to projects or work that doesn't align to your core values or areas of focus. When your business is under pressure or you're new in role at a company, people can have a tendency to take action without listening to their inner voice.

Before you doubt or dismiss your intuition, take note of what your intuition and experience tells you about a situation or opportunity. Weigh the possible solutions to a problem based on data and slow down to hear what your gut is telling you to do.

2. Don't rule out what your instincts are telling you based on data.

With an abundance of data and information, companies today often focus on business analytics first to inform decision making, which works well, but in some cases can result in an analysis paralysis or lack of creativity when solving problems.

"Intuitive decision making can feel at odds with what the data is telling you," shares Ben Billups, founder and CEO of Billups, an independent out-of-home advertising agency in U.S. "But you need both to get ahead. Data and technology give us more freedom than ever before to experiment with what's working and what's not, but at the end of the day, instinct is what builds opportunity as we continue to take risks and learn through experience."

An over reliance on data when making decisions can cause you to miss opportunities, or rely on the past as predictor of the future. Factors such as brand reputation, culture, individual customer relationships and trust that don't show up in the data are often some of the most powerful drivers of success.

3. Being willing to let your guard down, while staying open to new ideas.

In my experience, often the best leaders are both self-aware and empathetic - with a high emotional IQ. They are consciously listening to both what their own intuition and team are telling them, while also keeping an open mind to learn and experiment with new approaches.

To do this effectively, you have to be willing to let your guard down and float ideas that are incomplete or uninformed, but instinctively feel like the right pivot or place to start when brainstorming a solution. You also have to take a genuine interest in other people's experiences, while encouraging them to take a non-linear path to build on idea or pursue an area of opportunity based on instinct.

"When I open up to my team and encourage them to think freely and improvise, that's often when the magic happens," notes Billups. "I look to hire people who aren't afraid to take risks and make decisions based on what their instincts and experience tells them is the right path."

Why this all matters

In the end, instinct is one of the most important success factors for leaders. Great entrepreneurs not only develop and listen to their instincts, but seek out people who have an ability to see connections and develop opportunities based on their intuition, and push forward even when others can't see what they're after.

Published on: Jul 5, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.