Friday, 19 July 2013 14:44

The Search for Executive Wisdom

A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go but ought to be.”  ~ Rosalynn Carter, former First Lady

Every person in an executive role is expected to exercise wisdom in their decisions. However, senior leaders are often more concerned with meeting the numbers and therefore fail to come close to being astute over the long term.

Defining Wisdom

The Oxford English Dictionary (1998) states that wisdom is “the capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct; soundness of judgement in the choice between means and ends; sometimes less strictly, sound sense in practical affairs; opposite to folly.” One must apply a combination of judgement, decisions, and actions.

Robert J. Sternberg, former Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, sees wisdom as the application of tacit knowledge in pursuing the goal of a common good. In the case of executives, their decisions must consider the needs of customers, suppliers, employees, the organisation, financial profits, shareholders and the environment, often globally.

According to Sternberg (2005), “Effective leadership is, in large part, a function of creativity in generating ideas, analytical intelligence in evaluating the quality of these ideas, practical intelligence in implementing the ideas, and convincing others to value and follow the ideas, and wisdom to ensure that the decisions and their implementation are for the common good of all stakeholders.

Finding Wisdom

Wisdom in the workplace typically implies two distinct areas of wise behavior:

  1.     The wisdom of corporate decision-making:
  •         Knowing what information to use in decision-making
  •         Creating a culture of knowledge in order to acquire that information in a timely fashion
  •         Assessing it in both short- and long-term frameworks
  1.     Reaping the financial rewards that come with shrewd financial choices.

Wisdom in Action

In order to make a smart decision, a wise leader must draw upon intellectual, emotional, and social comprehension. One must:

  •     Gather information
  •     Discern reality from artifice
  •     Evaluate and edit the accumulating knowledge
  •     Listen with both heart and mind
  •     Consider what is morally right
  •     Weigh what is socially just
  •     Consider others as much as self
  •     Think about the here and now
  •     Consider future impact

In times of crisis, however, wisdom sometimes demands the paradoxical decision to resist action or judgement.

When called upon in any challenging situation, no matter how trivial, if you slow down long enough to ask yourself the question, “What would be the wisest thing to do?” you will already be moving closer to making a more appropriate and apt decision.

The Contradictions of Wisdom

There are recurrent themes and qualities that comprise wisdom:

  •     Humility
  •     Patience
  •     Clear-eyed, dispassionate view of human nature
  •     Emotional resilience
  •     Ability to cope with adversity
  •     A philosophical acknowledgement of ambiguity
  •     Recognising the limitations of knowledge

Action is important, as well as inaction, at times. Compassion is central to wisdom, but so is emotional detachment. Knowledge is crucial, but often wisdom deals with uncertainty and complexity. These inherent contradictions are embedded in any definition of wisdom. In fact, they are the essence of what makes wisdom so critical to leaders.

Business Intelligence

“Business intelligence is the systematic use of information about your business to understand, report on and predict different aspects of performance,” according to Professor Tom Davenport of Babson College in Massachusetts.

His examples of current sage leaders include Jeff Bezos of and Warren Buffet, the investor. Buffet is known for his financial wisdom built upon a foundation of expert accounting knowledge, however, his true brilliance stems from a deep understanding of people and human nature.

Social Intelligence

A less appreciated dimension of wisdom is social wisdom which is critical for understanding and incorporating the diversity of “people factors” into business decisions to create a greater common goal.

Exercising social wisdom in the workplace, promotes performance, goal alignment and social unity by:

  •     Decreasing stress and conflicts in the workplace
  •     Improving Job satisfaction
  •     Promoting Quality in the workplace
  •     Nurturing the sense of personal fulfillment
  •     Providing for more Innovative and creative opportunities

Developing Your Wisdom

Psychologist and author Richard R. Kilburg presents questions for improving leadership wisdom that can be reviewed in coaching sessions (Executive Wisdom: Coaching and the Emergence of Virtuous Leaders, APA, 2006).

  1.     Take a moment to relax, then ask yourself the following questions:
  •         What is the stupidest thing you have ever done as a person or as a professional?
  •         If you are a leader in an organisation, what is the stupidest decision or action you have ever taken?
  •         What made the decision or action stupid? When and how did you know it was stupid? What criteria did you use to judge its merits?
  1.     Now, ask yourself,
  •         What is the wisest thing you have ever done as a person or as a professional?
  •         If you are a leader in an organisation, what is the wisest decision or action you have ever taken?
  •         What made the decision or action wise? When and how did you know it was wise? What criteria did you use to judge its merits?
  1.     Can you develop any internal sense of how you created, accessed, and used a sense of rightness in the situations in which you believe you acted wisely as opposed to stupidly? If so, jot down and reflect on what you think and feel went into the emergence of that sense of rightness.
  2.     Take a few minutes to talk to someone out loud about what you have explored or, if you are reluctant to share it with another person, dictate some notes onto a voice recorder and then listen to yourself afterward. The experience of giving voice to inner work can often provide additional insight and learning.

Discussing these issues with your coach will help you develop a powerful link to leading with wisdom.


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