Earlier in our careers, most of us spend an inordinate amount of our time acquiring and accumulating knowledge. That knowledge tends to be both theoretical and technical and it provides a necessary foundation for us to be able carry out our responsibilties.
However, as we move into leadership positions, the real differentiator between the simply effective leader and the exceptional leader is not so much what we know but the extent to which our behaviour can be described as being ‘wise’.
The relationship between wisdom and knowledge can be represented by the ‘wisdom hierarchy’, shown below, where Data (raw facts) is at the bottom of the pyramid; then Information (meaningful data); then Knowledge (understanding of information in context); with Wisdom (judgement using reference to values and experience) at the top of the pyramid.
The simplistic dictionary definition of ‘wisdom’ is the ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgements.
However, this doesn’t quite do justice to the wise people with whom I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with during the course of my life.
The wise leader can look outside the immediacy of the current situation and apply an alternative set of criteria beyond the simple accomplishment of the task in hand, which are directly related to the features of wise leadership.
To that extent the wise leader has: “The ability to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.” – John Bradshaw
The ‘right’ here being connected to the idea of the common good informed by reference to ethics, values and experience.
This doesn’t make the wise leader a ‘soft touch’ – but highlights the fact that he or she understands that this adherence to the ‘right’ is crucial in building reputation, winning over customers and employees, minimising risk, and building resilience and quality in its widest sense.
Over time I have modified these into the following questions:
· What to do?
· When to do it? and;
· Why is it the right thing to do?
It’s the third question in this trio which lies at the heart of the wise decision, and informs the other two.
Jerome Bruner, the eminent psychologist advises human beings to engage in a ‘dialectic of possible worlds’, whereby the individual explores possible, or opposite, worlds, rather than being stuck in the singular perspective that can often trap us into ‘lock step’ behaviour. It is this capacity to escape from your default perspectives that distinguishes the wise leader.
Leadership behaviours can occupy the full range of a spectrum that cover specific aspects of leadership, e.g. selflessness to selfishness; intuitive to data led; directing to eliciting.
The wise leader navigates between these extremes and can select the most appropriate balance to suit the moment – consistent with the features of wise leadership as identified earlier.
So why wise leadership? It’s a reasonable enough question – surely there are more than enough leadership theories in the world?
This glut was once described as the ‘alphabet soup of leadership’ – given that you could go through the alphabet and ascribe each letter to a model ranging from Adaptive Leadership to Theory Z.
So with so many competing and conflicting models why introduce yet another to that leadership broth?
The answer to that question lies in the definition of what it is to be ‘wise’.
The ancient Greeks first made that distinction between Techne (skill) and Sophia (wisdom). The Greeks referred to skill as techne, which was connected to technical skills and making and doing, as opposed to any deeper understanding. In leadership terms ’Techne’ are those concrete things that a leader does to accomplish their objectives, i.e. the observable behaviours that they live out on a day-to-day basis.
Wisdom ‘Sophia’, for the Greeks was more to do with an understanding of events, settings and people – and the ability to observe, distinguish and make judgements about the best course of action to take in order to maximise the ‘common good’.
In leadership terms skills are those concrete things that a leader does to accomplish their objectives, i.e. the observable behaviours that they perform on a daily basis; whereas wisdom is a framework you use to decide which skills to use and why, when and how to use them.
This can be simplified further, i.e.
· Leadership is a way of behaving;
· Wisdom is a way of thinking
Without wisdom the leader simply ‘selects and plays’ from the alphabetic menu of leadership models – without any coherent operating system connecting them into a purposeful and humane activity.
Of course, as human beings, we have a tendency to want to shortcut everything, which is why so many prospective leaders are drawn to ‘technical leadership’ development programmes that provide leaders with the knowledge and skills necessary to lead, but don’t spend any time on the overarching operating system as it relates to wise leadership.
Such leaders will be effective in meeting the day-to-day demands of their business but ultimately their behaviour lacks a consistent thread that connects them into sustainable, humane, and, ultimately, wise ways of living that brings meaning, confidence and purpose to those whom they lead.THE CEANNAS FEATURES OF ‘WISE’ LEADERSHIP:
1. Wise leaders can look at issues from a variety of perspectives;
2. Wise leaders consistently and courageously do the ‘right thing’;
3. Wise leaders ‘know’ they don’t know everything;
4. Wise leaders connect the past, the present, and the future;
5. Wise leaders are aware of their own human imperfections;
6. Wise leaders can simplify complex and complicated issues and reduce them to their very essence;
7. Wise leaders travel without the burden of having to prove their wisdom;
8. Wise leaders balance issues towards the ‘common good’;
9. Wise leaders see layers of connections when others see discrete issues;
10. Wise leaders engage their mind in union with their humanity.Wise leaders can look at issues from a variety of perspectives: Ceannas wise leadership #1
There is something incredibly appealing about the leader who sees things with absolute clarity and who expresses their point of view with complete certainty.
The upsurge of populist global politics has created a race for leaders to find ever more singular ways of describing a problem and then presenting themselves as a person who has the silver bullet to resolve that problem. Employment, immigration, economic growth, extremism, etc. can all be fixed by adopting the perspective that represents their singular view of the world.
Given the complexity of society such simplistic solutions appeal to those of us who struggle to come to terms with the ever-changing world and who hark back to times when things seemed to be much less complex (if ever that was really the case).
It’s against this backdrop of certainty that the wise leader must compete – for if there is to be a distinctive feature of wise leadership it is surely the ability to adopt multiple perspectives when considering difficult problems.
In their search for certainty, those who adopt a singular perspective refuse to recognise that there are any other vantage points that might shed alternative light on an issue. By adopting the singular perspective the leader creates a force field around their opinions characterised by:
1. Self-deception and delusion;
2. Partial truths;
3. Self-fulfilling prophesies;
4. Dogmatic opinion;
5. Selective attention;
10. Over assertiveness
Despite these handicaps the world of the ‘certain’ leader can be very appealing, so why on earth would anyone want to even consider adopting the multiple perspectives of the wise leader? Surely certainty and clarity are prerequisites for good leadership? Imagine the military leader who, when facing an emergency situation, took an approach that was characterised by “on the one hand we could do this, and on the other hand we could do that” – and by the time they had taken action they were overtaken by the circumstance.
However, in reality, most leadership situations don’t have the demands of immediacy – although my military friends would say that even in times of emergency they are trained not just to approach a problem from a singular point view, i.e. their own.
The problem with the singular view is that it starts with a selective stance, which filters and constrains available information. If I decide that there is only one way to look at a problem then I am immediately cutting myself off from fresh and novel insights generated by an alternative point of view.
Where a leader defaults to a singular and preferred perspective they are at risk of being subject to unconscious biases, both in terms of how they look at things (perception) and how they think about things (reasoning).
By recognising the limits of any single perspective the wise leader frees herself/himself from a partial and fragmented viewpoint and creates a much more three dimensional and big picture view of the world – from which comes behaviour that is understood to be ‘wise’.
Not only does the wise leader have a capacity to adopt alternative perspectives, but they can connect and integrate them to generate even more complete insights on problems and leadership challenges.
It is this three-dimensional and inter-connected perspective on leadership that is at the core of the Ceannas Leadership Index, whereby the leader is enabled to reflect upon their own leadership from seven alternative yet inter-connected lenses on their behaviour.
By looking at leadership through the eye of the Sculptor, the Scientist, the Builder, the Gardener, the Parent, the Conductor and the Villager, the leader begins to appreciate their own default perspectives – and how these shape, inform and control their behaviour.
It is a privilege to observe even the most experienced and effective leader begin to shift from their established perspectives by looking at their own leadership from different points of view to generate new and revealing insights on their own behaviour – and in turn experiment with new and alternative solutions that fulfil the definition of – wise leadership.Wise leaders consistently and courageously do the ‘right thing’: Ceannas wise leadership #2
Doing the ‘right thing’ seems like a simplistic catch-all to describe a central characteristic of wise leadership.
Surely such a subjective definition leaves it open to abuse for those who would seek to justify their behaviour by claiming that they were driven to do the ‘right thing’.
That’s why wise leadership cannot simply depend upon a person authentically living out their own values in their behaviour.
The problem with this fashionable view of leadership, i.e. the ‘authentic leader’, is that it gives a licence to those who would justify morally indefensible behaviour simply on the grounds that they are faithfully living out their values.
Such a definition would have enabled immoral historical figures such as Hitler or Stalin to justify their behaviour by claiming that it authentically conformed to their own personal value system.
The ‘right thing’, then, is much more than simply adhering to your own values. It’s also so much more than just saying the ‘right thing’.
The ‘right thing’, then, is shorthand for ethical behaviour – whereby the way the person lives and makes decisions are all underpinned by a commitment to honest, fair and principled behaviour.
By way of example the recent VW scandal demonstrates the consequences of leaders failing to act in an ethical manner. The criminal act was the inclusion of a ‘defeat device’ in diesel engines that recognised testing conditions and switched to a less polluting mode. Yet out on the open road this device switched off increasing by 40 times the emission of toxic nitric oxide. The final fine for this breach of trust has been estimated to run to $18 billion.
The initial response from VW was that this was down to the actions of a small number of engineers who had operated independently of the organisation.
However, as it unravelled it could be traced back to a failure in ethical leadership from the very top of the organisation.
At a Board level many of VW’s most senior executives were remunerated on the amount of dividend that was paid out to shareholders.
In order to increase this dividend they realised that they needed to grow their market share in the US. In 2012 the chief executive Martin Winterkorn aggressively announced that VW would overtake Toyota and would achieve global dominance in the car industry. In order to realise this ascendancy VW would target the US fuel-efficient market and increase their sales by 5% of their existing 11 million diesel vehicles sold in the US.
This ambitious performance indicator created a major corporate conundrum, i.e. how to make cars more energy efficient; keep them competitive in terms of price; and make a substantive contribution to environmental safety?
In the immediate release of the story the CEO blamed a small number of engineers who had operated independently.
“No serious and manifest breaches of duty on the part of any serving or former members of the board of management have been established,” – Volkswagen statement
However, as it unraveled it became apparent that there existed a ‘groupthink’ in the organisation that led people to take actions, be complicit, or remain silent in order to achieve the higher goal of breaking the US auto market.
All this was a consequence of the ‘ethical tone’ established at the very top of the organisation, which was – despite the rhetoric of environmental safety – one of increasing the shareholder dividend, and in so doing the personal remuneration for senior executives.
Despite Martin Winterkorn claiming that, “I’m not aware of any wrong doing on my part.” he created a culture in the organisation where achievement of corporate goals led to others picking up on that ‘tone’ to the extent that they subverted the regulations.
If ‘ethical leadership’ was at the core of his day-to-day behaviour then it’s unlikely, although not impossible, that others would have felt they were ‘doing the right thing’ to achieve the organisation’s goals.
The wise leader then realises that their own example and behaviour is critical in setting the ethical tone of their organisation, and, such is their commitment to doing ‘the right thing’ that they live that out in a consistent and courageous manner – even if that is sometimes to the detriment of the organisation in the short-term.
Where leaders behave in such a manner then those who follow them are much more likely to be inspired to live up to similar values and be an influence that will last them the rest of their lives.
“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.” – Thomas JeffersonWise leaders know they don’t need to know everything: Ceannas wise leadership #3
It was Donald Rumsfeld, former US Defence Secretary, who brought to prominence the idea of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.
“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
At first glance this may seem a bit tortured, but at the heart of this logical mantra is a key element of wise leadership – to which I will return later.
But first let us consider the aspiring and ambitious leader. If aiming for the top of a high performing organisation, their trajectory will be characterised by an ability to absorb, understand and apply knowledge in all its intellectual, technical and practical forms. That ability will be recognised throughout their life by distinguished grades, honours and degrees.
As this person moves into the world of work they will set about acquiring more knowledge, which further distinguishes them from their peers. Moving up the ladder of success they collect and gather more and more knowledge, which gives them an edge over those who would compete for the most senior roles, until at last they reach the top of the tree – having proved themselves to be the first amongst equals in terms of their ‘knowledge’ and expertise.
But what if, just at that very moment of topping out, it was suggested to them that their continued habit of collecting and acquiring knowledge was actually a self-limiting factor on their effectiveness in their senior role? How easy do think it would be for such an individual to suddenly say to his senior colleagues “I don’t need to know that”.
Such an idea runs in complete contradiction to the traditional notion – first promulgated by Francis Bacon in the 16th century – that “knowledge is power”.
For many leaders this concept still tacitly informs much of their leadership behaviour. Such has been their mastery of their subject on the way up the corporate ladder that the notion of not knowing everything that happens beneath them is a complete anathema to them.
I have witnessed leaders throughout my career who betray their stated intention to empower others in the organisation by an overwhelming desire to ‘know’ every detail about their colleagues’ responsibilities.
It is this learned behaviour that lies at the core of micro management and over scrutiny – and all of the associated negative consequences for the organisation.
In the words of Donald Rumsfeld’s such leaders can only operate in a world of known knowns, i.e. They need to have a detailed knowledge of everything that’s going on in their organisation.
In many senses such leaders become knowledge ‘gatekeepers’ – for if they don’t understand a concept or process due to its complexity or variation from the ‘known’ norm then it is extremely unlikely that it will be approved.
Contrast this with the wise leader who understands the limiting impact attempting to know everything.
The ancient Chinese philosophers recognised this folly when they reflected upon the ability of wise leaders to ‘let go of knowledge’.
“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom remove things every day.” – Lao Tzu
Wise leaders can live with the truth that they cannot ‘know’ everything. They understand not only the debilitating impact upon themselves, but upon the organisation.
Wise leaders, then, can live with ‘known unknowns’, “I don’t need to know that”. They can also live with ‘unknown knowns’, they entrust others to share information with them if the holder of the knowledge deems it necessary.
And they can even live with ‘unknown unknowns’ knowing that there will always be things out there that will impact on their organisation about which no one can predict or be aware. Unlike their ‘knowing’ counterpart who would never admit to such a lapse,
The wise leader is still a learner but not a magpie who collects every passing bauble. Wise leaders make sophisticated judgements about what they need to know and why they need to know it. They recognise the empowering nature of not being the acknowledged expert in a field of their own business – entrusting others to ‘know’ on their behalf.
In this regard they are continually deciding what knowledge they can ‘let go’ in order to allow them to focus on those areas that will have the greatest long term impact upon the health and well-being of the organisation – especially when dealing with the inevitable ‘unknown unknown’.
I’ll leave the last word with Confucius – who seemed to capture this so perfectly over 2,500 years ago:
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” – ConfuciusWise leaders connect the past, the present and the future – Ceannas wise leadership #4
“Let us learn from the past, to profit from the present, and from the present to live better in the future” – William Wordsworth
By connecting the three sequential states that make up the flow of time, Wordsworth captures a fundamental characteristic of wise leadership.
Simply put, the wise leader can make powerful connections between the past, present and future and is able to use these insights to make ‘good’ decisions that have a positive impact upon those around them and wider society.
Yet for all this might appear to be a relatively simple thing to do, the reality is that it is an asset that few leaders ever manage to pull off naturally.
For it’s likely that most of us who are leaders will have a preference for one or other of these points on the continuum of time.
There are those who focus primarily on the present. Not in a caricature of ‘mindfulness’, whereby they draw sustenance from being conscious of the moment; but as a favoured strategy to concentrate upon the concrete nature of the ‘here and now’.
Such leaders concentrate on the data, short-term projects and performance indicators and see the present as being something that travels forward in time to become the future, leaving the past behind.
Then there are those leaders who solely look towards the past, and measure everything against that yardstick. Such leaders can adopt one of two approaches towards the past; firstly, a slavish adherence to what has gone before, characterised by nostalgia and regret which they use to justify resistance to change; or, alternatively, to purge the past from every facet of their organisation on the basis that what went before cannot meet the need for change – regardless of its value.
Then there are those leaders who are transfixed by the future, which Tennessee Williams called the art of the ‘Perhaps’. Such leaders are driven by a need for relentless change by seeking out the new practices that will provide the ‘edge’ in that imagined world beyond the sight of those who are trapped (in the leader’s eyes) in the present or the past – yet who are isolated from their colleagues by their failure to inhabit the present.
From a personal point of view I am naturally drawn to the future, whereas my business partner is much more concerned with present – that is not to say that either of us is disconnected from either the future or the present respectively – simply that we tend towards a particular perspective. However, without knowledge and awareness of these tacit preferences we can miss out on what the other might see quite naturally.
Yet to suggest that we are one-dimensional souls would be a mistake. I recall a well-known leader who was once described, in frustrated terms, to be a ‘radical traditionalist’. The term was used as a way of capturing her capacity to meld the importance of tradition, ritual and custom with a fearless commitment to experiment with new ideas that challenged the boundaries of accepted practice.
Wise leaders seem to have that capacity to move their perspective backwards and forwards in time to look at problems through each of these temporal dimensions.
The wise leader appreciates that human beings have a fundamental need to feel that they belong to something that precedes their presence on earth. Not perhaps Newton’s idea of “standing on the shoulders of giants” but that they are part of something that builds upon the legacy of others, and in turn, gives them the opportunity to leave their own mark upon the world.
The concept of creating a historical reservoir helps to reinforce people’s cultural identity and sense of attachment to an organisation – and in turn helps them to make sense of the present – and the future.
This is why wise leaders, even of new organisations, help their colleagues to appreciate how their endeavors fit with those who came before and how it will contribute to the future – even in the most prosaic and practical industries.
Nor do wise leaders accept that the present is a fixed state, either to be decried or celebrated. Having said that they intuitively understand that the present is always a step towards the future. Yet through wise leadership they appreciate the need to avoid the pendulum created by an ‘addiction to change’ that can sometimes be the outcome of those who too easily let go of old beliefs and attachments.
Yet ironically these selfsame beliefs and attachments can merge with the present to create a bias towards the ‘status quo’ – where people are reluctant to engage in change due to their fear of losing what they know (even when that might be a practice that is destined to lead to the ultimate extinction of their organisation).
Wise leaders, then, always have an eye towards the future for their judgement will almost always influence a future state, albeit that it simply alters the present. Yet the past and the present also inform the future, especially in terms of learning from the mistakes we and our forebears have made before – this knowledge gives us a confidence to experiment and try things in the knowledge that learning from mistakes will make a valuable contribution to the future.
I have explored elsewhere the notion of reversing into the future, whereby the individual leader imagines a future, and then uses that knowledge to inform and shape the present.
However, the task for the wise leader, as this short exploration reveals, is exceptionally complex, given the need to navigate the contradictory advantages and disadvantages of the past, present and future perspectives in order to make ‘good’ decisions that will have a positive impact upon those around them and wider society.
Nonetheless, those leaders who only tend to inhabit one temporal state – albeit unawares – will be locked into a decision-making framework that narrows and limits their effectiveness, and diminishes the lives of those whom they would lead.
And so, to return to the words of the wise poet William Wordsworth, we should, wherever possible, seek to:
“Learn from the past, to profit from the present, and from the present to live better in the future”Wise leaders are aware of their own human imperfections: Ceannas wise leadership #5
The definition of ‘perfection’ is the state of being ‘perfect’. To be ‘perfect’ is to be complete and correct in every way, of the best possible type or without fault.
That’s quite an ambition – and possibly one that is quite attainable in the world of sport where many athletes spend their lives in the pursuit of perfection.
Yet for all the incredible sporting feats that take our breaths away, the sporting arena is by definition a relatively closed environment. Unfortunately, such is the prevalence of sporting examples transposed into the world of leadership that many leaders believe in the attainability of the state of ‘perfection’.
The problem with this concept is that it immediately creates the illusion that flawlessness and infallibility are within reach of those with sufficient talent, and aptitude to work hard.
The consequence of leaders who present themselves – even unwittingly – as being perfect is that it creates the “downward spiral of leadership perfection”.
This phenomenon can be captured as follows: The leader who presents as ‘perfect’ can be an alluring and comforting individual. They don’t make mistakes; they take responsibility and accountability for everything; they provide solutions and directions to every query; and, above all, they remove the need for people to think for themselves.
The downward spiral occurs as the mutual reinforcement occurs over time as the leader makes more and more singular decisions, and those around them become more and more dependent on their ‘perfect leader’.
The ironic consequence of such a negative symbiotic relationship is that it leads to dissatisfaction from both sides, i.e. the leader complains that people don’t accept the responsibility which goes with their roles; and those who are led complain that the leader never gives them an opportunity to show what they can really do.
For all its initial comfort, the eventual lack of space to manoeuvre and contribute their expertise undermines and stifles those around such a leader. The ‘perfect leader’, then, removes the oxygen from the environment of those whom they lead – leading to one of two outcomes: either people leave the organisation through frustration; or, more likely; the leader is eventually overtaken by reality and a mistake takes place. The latter shatters the artifice of invulnerability and the loss of credibility undermines any notion of authenticity. By that time it’s unlikely that the leader can shift their behaviour so they continue with the illusion – but no one believes it and the downward spiral simply accelerates.
On the other hand wise leaders recognise the reality of the ‘human condition’, i.e. the positive and negative aspects of being human. They understand that flaws and mistakes are part of being a human and they acknowledge and admit to their own imperfections.
Of the many wise leaders I’ve had the chance to work with, work for, and observe, it is this willingness to share their own vulnerabilities that lends them such credibility. I’m not talking here of some huge destructive handicap, but something that reminds us all that they are human beings like us, capable of the same mistakes and errors, which put them just within reach of our imagination enough to encourage us to strive to be like them.
There are some writers in the leadership field who stress the importance of ‘humility’, the quality of being ‘humble’, which has many religious connotations such as having a modest or low view of one’s importance, and submission to your religion. I much prefer an alternative definition, which comes from the Latin root of humility, derived from humus (earth) as being ‘grounded’ or ‘from the earth’.
Wise leaders, then, are ‘grounded’ in terms of their own importance and abilities, yet do not place limits on achievements. This was captured perfectly by President Theodore Roosevelt:
“Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground”
Such leaders seem to have three things in common when it comes to turning their imperfections into an advantage:
1. They provide an example to others that they can be a follower;
2. They engage in discussion (and listen), not with a view to win the argument or influence opinion, but with a view to creating a better solution – even if it didn’t come from them;
3. They take advantage of their mistakes by turning them into events from which others can learn
These three simple behaviours, when consistently lived out by the wise leader, help to create an organisation that can achieve well beyond the limits imposed by individual leader’s abilities – regardless of how good that leader might be.Wise leaders can simplify complex and complicated issues and reduce them to their very essence: Ceannas wise leadership #6
Modern leaders conduct their working lives in complicated, ever-changing settings and have the unenviable challenge of making that disorder meaningful and understandable for others.
Yet just at the time when leaders should be helping others to make sense of that complexity they are pressurised into focusing upon the quantitative, mechanistic elements of their job that do nothing to help others to understand the ‘big picture’.
In essence this is the challenge facing leaders. For the tendency is to seek to ‘persuade’ others by providing the ‘hard’ information about processes, targets, outcomes, budgets, systems and structures, and expect people to get behind this because it presents the facts.
In the 1970’s, the celebrated organisational theorist, Professor James G March first introduced the idea of leadership as being a balance between two alternative perspectives, namely plumbing and poetry.
Plumbing represents the ‘hard’ information and concrete nature of operational issues that can dominate our thinking in organisations. On the other hand, poetry is language at its most condensed and most potent. It captures our emotions, and taps into our feelings, our imagination and our passions.
Now it would not do to work in a place where a leader’s behaviour was located at the extreme poetry end of the spectrum – for nothing would ever get done. Yet we do not appear to have the same reticence to slip towards the extreme of the plumbing end of the continuum, and be pleased with our ‘busyness’ and focus on the ‘business’
I am not arguing here that your next work bulletin should be written in verse and seek to reduce employees to tears. But I am suggesting that wise leaders can make sense of their environment that make people’s working lives worthwhile and meaningful.
It is not so much writing or speaking as a poet – but ‘thinking’ as a poet that can liberate wise leaders and their colleagues from the tedium of ‘counting trees’.
The wise leader can look at a complex problem or environment and then distil that down into something that people can begin to have empathy for, and understand.
It’s often this lack of empathy that prevents people from collectively getting behind the mission of the organisation – especially if that mission is only really understood and owned by the senior leaders.
The wise leader is also seeking to make sense of the complex and complicated world in which we live, and in so doing helps others to see how the subject matter relates to their own lives and their own fulfillment.
The other advantage from thinking like a poet is that it stimulates and encourages creative thinking. The requirement to see connections, and to extract the essence of something releases a way of thinking that is a significant departure from the simply quantitative and mechanistic perspective, which so dominates modern organisations.
Giving our lives meaning and purpose is at the heart of what it is to be a human being. The challenge facing leaders is how to genuinely keep ourselves and our colleagues invested with wonder and purpose, especially when the focus can so often be on the mundane and the ordinary.
So in conclusion, ask yourself whether or not people in your organisation are imbued with a sense of wonder and a sense of higher purpose – if they aren’t – then perhaps you need to set down your tools and nudge yourself towards the poetry end of your practice.Wise leaders travel without the burden of having to prove their wisdom: Ceannas wise leadership #7
In almost every culture where wisdom is valued, it is seen to be a journey as opposed to an end-point. Yet the wisdom journey is a paradox; for as a person becomes wiser they are more and more likely to be able to identify the things that they do and think that are not wise.
For that reason a wise person recognises that attaining wisdom is always beyond their reach, whereas a less wise person could claim to have fully attained that state.
The concept of wise people travelling without the burden of having to prove their wisdom was identified by the Native North Americans as a fundamental characteristic, and captured that in the idea that “the wise carry their wisdom lightly”.
This chimed with an ancient Chinese saying from the philosopher Laozi, who in the 6th Century reflected upon ‘integrity’ with the following:
The leader with integrity
Does not insist upon his Integrity,
For that reason he has integrity;
The leader without integrity
Never loses sight of his integrity;
For this reason he lacks integrity.
And so, with apologies to Laozi, here is my reinterpretation as it relates to wisdom:
Wise leaders balance issues towards the ‘common good’: Ceannas wise leadership #8
The idea of the ‘common good’ seems a bit old fashioned in this modern era of “Us first” – where everything is viewed first through the lens of “what’s in it for us?”
This concept is best told through a story my grandmother used to tell me about an ancient Aberdeenshire coastal village called Pimscoorem.
The village depended upon two fishing boats to go out to sea every day and return with enough fish to feed the village, with a little left over to barter for other produce, and a little left over that was sold for savings. One day, one of the boats wouldn’t catch enough fish, but it was balanced out by the catch from the other boat, and on the next day the balance worked the other way.
All this worked well until the boats started to show their age and it became obvious that the catches were reducing every year as the boats struggled to cope with the worsening weather conditions.
A village meeting was called and it was suggested that the only solution was for the village to use all of its resources to buy a new boat to replace the two old ones. Everyone agreed that a new boat with bigger nets would be able to catch more than the two old boats put together. However, each of the old boats belonged to a separate family who had fished for over seven generations and never fished in the other family’s boat. The new arrangement would mean that not every member of the family would be able to continue as a fisherman.
The two families went off to discuss the proposal. It was clear everyone that the two old boats would not be seaworthy in a few years’ time, in fact they were already dangerous, but the idea of giving up their family heritage made it an impossible decision to accept.
The two families returned to the village meeting and said that they couldn’t give up their old boat. A few years later the catches dwindled to the point that the village no longer had enough money to buy a new boat, and the village was eventually abandoned and overtaken by the encroaching sea and the windswept sand dunes. No one from the two fishing families ever went to sea again.
The point of the story was that times change and we must change with them – even if it means that we have to give up something we care deeply about. If we don’t then we will lose everything we care about.
My grandmother was a wise woman and her story might be of some assistance to those leaders who only look at problems from the perspective of “what’s in for them”, in much the same way as the two fishing families did. If you only look at your own needs and ignore the needs of the wider community then eventually your own well-being is diminished.
This then, is at the heart of the challenge for leaders, the need to balance the micro view of the world, with the macro reality that has the potential to overwhelm our local demands unless we take definitive action that addresses the ‘common good’.
If not, then the encroaching sea and windswept sand dunes are not that far away.Wise leaders see layers of connections when others see discrete issues: Ceannas wise leadership #9
“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. They don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions, without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better designs we will have.” Steve Jobs 1996
Steve Jobs might not be everyone’s idea of a wise leader and certainly he only ticks off a few of the Ceannas characteristics of wise leadership, yet when it comes to the capacity to see connections between diverse experiences and knowledge he was probably without peer.
The challenge for those of us who inhabit a more ordinary sphere is to consider how we might make unexpected connections between the seemingly disconnected pieces of knowledge available to us in order to come up with more effective and wiser judgments and solutions.
Wise leaders engage their mind in union with their humanity: Ceannas wise leadership #10
Leaders obviously require a level of intelligence to be able to make sense of their world and use their knowledge to help them make wise decisions.
However, the application of intelligence alone is not in itself going to guarantee wisdom.
For the last of the ten features of Ceannas wise leadership is the capacity of the leader to infuse their decision making with the virtue of humanity.
Wise leaders’ decisions are especially characterised by a concern for the welfare for others. Not just in terms of operating with the legal requirements of justice but by demonstrating unbiased treatment without favouritism or discrimination.
No less a person than Abraham Lincoln, who epitomises the essence of ‘wise leadership’ had this to say about this in a letter to Leonard Swett, May 30, 1860,
“These men ask for just the same thing, fairness, and fairness only. This, so far as in my power, they, and all others, shall have.” – Abraham Lincoln
Yet fairness alone is not enough to distinguish humanity. For it is ultimately a predisposition to help and assist other human beings. Such help is not offered in return for any reward or advantage but simply for the person who is helped.
In many senses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 represents that unconditional commitment through its very first article:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and they should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
Regardless of their awareness of the above, the wise leader carries their own personal charter with them, that is constantly evolving but which informs, shapes and governs every decision they take by requiring them to engage their mind with their humanity.