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Gut feelings: Don’t discount them

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

Kathleen Sebelius was insurance commissioner of Kansas when health powerhouse Anthem wanted to buy Blue Cross Blue Shield, a move it had completed for seven other states. Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Kansas shareholders were on board and the outlook was rosy.

But Sebelius wasn’t sure. “My gut just told me this was a disaster waiting to happen,” she remembered, “that we did not want to be acquired by an out-of-state, for-profit company, that we did not want to lose that level of control.”

Sebelius set up a series of statewide meetings to discuss the issue. She saw before the first one that 350 people had packed a room and more were waiting outside in the cold.

It turned out people were up in arms and anxious to debate. After several of these meetings, Sibelius held an administrative hearing in which both sides were allowed to state their case, after which Sebelius would act as a kind of judge. She recalled looking at the heads of Anthem, all millionaires, seated in folding chairs in a ballroom looking agonized to be there.

“They never in their wildest dreams expected to be in Topeka, Kansas with this girl up there,” Sebelius said. “They were so sure it was going to be successful that they’d already printed stationery.”

Sebelius had the clout to block the takeover, and she did so. She was sued, but the Supreme Court upheld her authority in the matter. The decision was quite popular in Kansas, with the people seeing themselves as the underdog against corporate monoliths. Sebelius was elected governor of the state the following year.

And the entire struggle sprung from a gut feeling, well before the data, public opinion and the power of the opponent was analyzed.

Sebelius went on to serve as United States Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2009 until 2014.

— Adapted from Why Women Should Rule the World, Dee Dee Myers, HarperCollins.

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