The Work of Wisdom and Leadership



We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, and effort which no one can spare us.   Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time Vol. II: Within a Budding Grove, 1919)

What is wisdom and what has wisdom to do with leadership?

I am prompted to ask this question as my colleague Sarajane Aris in England is contemplating establishing a Wisdom Institute and we are discussing what this might mean.

Wisdom has many dimensions. It involves at least these seven things:

  • An ability to understand complex problems and see simplicity on the other side of complexity.
  • An ability to show empathy and compassion to others, especially when they are dealing with challenging issues.
  • An ability to understand why there are a range of views that need to be considered so that challenges can be overcome – the options are understood as well as the different perspectives which inform them.
  • An ability to see past the present and short and medium term future and understand consequences for the long-term. This is like a chess player who can see several moves ahead.
  • An ability to live with and through ambiguity and paradox, both in terms of cognitive complexity (many ways of thinking) and emotional complexity (competing feelings).
  • An ability at a time of difficulty to show courage through being a voice of clarity, reason and direction.
  • An ongoing search for meaning and mindful action – pursued through learning, sharing and reflection.

One of the world’s leading wisdom researchers – Monika Ardelt – has concluded that wisdom involves a cognitive component (the thinking elements from the above list), a reflective component (the self-awareness and empathic components of the above list) and an affective component (compassion and concern for others).

It seems to me that this thinking has significant implications for leadership – for those in leadership roles either because of their positions or because they are seen as leaders by others. In the model of renaissance leadership developed by Don Simpson and myself  (see here) we document the six practices of renaissance leaders needed for the twenty first century organization. These are:

  • Practice personal mastery
    They have high integrity and view self-awareness as a prerequisite for leadership. They work hard to develop their capacity to innovate, and to inspire others to join them in making the world a better place.
  • Apply a glocal mindset
    They have a keen sense of history and seek a holistic understanding of changes taking place on a global scale. They use this global perspective as they address local challenges and seize opportunities (global and local – hence “glocal”).
  • Accelerate cross-boundary learning
    They constantly seek to satisfy an intense curiosity about every facet of human life, past and present, scientific and artistic, technical and social. They guide others in distilling meaning from a morass of information, and efficiently apply their learning in creative ways to nurture innovation and drive improved performance.
  • Think back from the future
    They are readily able to imagine and articulate alternate futures and work back from there – connecting with lessons from the past to better understand the present and choose among possible paths to the future they see.
  • Lead systemic change
    They are systems thinkers who seek out patterns, inter-connections and inter-dependencies. They are skilled in seeking common ground and nurturing productive collaboration across diverse parts of a system – be it an organization, a sector, a community, a network – to solve complex problems and drive large-scale change.
  • Drive performance with a passion
    They care that their leadership makes a substantive and sustainable difference, and are relentless in their commitment to performance. They articulate clear (and high) expectations of themselves and others, create focused strategies for innovating to achieve these ends, and are disciplined about assessing progress.

These are the actions of leaders who seek to show courage and drive change with passion. They are the actions we see leaders taking on their journey to wisdom.

What makes for a wise renaissance leader is their ability to practice these six actions with compassion, mindfulness and concern for the long-term whether things are going well or badly. Monika Ardelt’s work on the successful coping strategies of those displaying wisdom confirms this view.

It is an interesting debate. No doubt Sarajane Aris will add to this debate and strengthen our understanding over time.

By Stephen Murgatroyd -