By Nick Jankel

Professional Global Keynote Speaker, Transformation & Innovation Catalyst, Leadership Theorist & Practitioner, 6 x Dyslexic Author, 3 x TV Coach, Co-Creator of Bio-Transformation®



This article is part 4 of 6 in the series 5 Must-Know Leadership Trends, Ideas & Ideals

Wise Leadership & Wisdom In the Workplace

Leaders will find it close to impossible to deliver on the potential of both digital-first business models and nature-based innovations without developing wisdom within. Knowledge is not enough. Wisdom is the great unlock for purpose-driven organizations that want to do well by doing good.

Wisdom is different from smarts or intelligence. We can be very smart and not very wise, missing disruption after disruption and opportunity after opportunity. As I wrote about in Now Lead the Change: Repurpose Your Career, Future-Proof Your Organization, and Regenerate Our Crisis-Hit World by Mastering Transformational Leadership, when Nokia lost 40% share of the global mobile phone market after being the market leader for so long, it was not because of a lack of intelligence. When General Haig approached the trench warfare of World War 1 as if it were ‘mobile operations at the halt,’ it was not because of a lack of smarts.

In fact, according to this article on Why some of the smartest people can be so very stupid, “intelligence actively abets stupidity by allowing pernicious rationalization.” The only way to tackle our natural tendency to see new challenges and opportunities with the conceptual frameworks of our past is to develop wisdom. We must constantly renew and reinvent how we see ourselves and our world.

As a Harvard Business Review article written in the wake of the 2008 crisis, on The Wise Leader, puts it:

Why doesn’t knowledge result in wise leadership? Many leaders use knowledge improperly, and most don’t cultivate the right kind… Managers tend to rely on explicit knowledge, because it can be codified, measured, and generalized. Dependence only on explicit knowledge prevents leaders from coping with change.

As well as high levels of wisdom being linked to better overall health, well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, and resilience—the world’s longest-running human research study at Harvard shows that older people who intentionally optimize meaning and relationships are happier and healthier than those that don’t—what is less known is that wise organizations encourage wise leadership, and wise leadership, in turn, fosters job satisfaction, which benefits employees’ physical and subjective well-being.

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The challenge is knowing what wise leadership looks like! Wisdom is hard to define, although a flurry of empirical research over the last few years is attempting to square that circle with evidence-based approaches to wisdom. The University of Chicago’s Center for Practical Wisdom has released a long paper attempting to define what a Wise Leader might be, and various practitioners have done their best to define it too.

My working definition is this:

Wise leadership is about being able to discern, in each alive and never-before-existed moment, what to do next—that brings more wholeness and flourishing to our team, enterprise, and system—in a win-win-win (win for company, investors, the world as a whole)…. where sustainability, employee well-being and dignity, and social concerns are included in all business decisions.
This requires lightning-fast sensemaking and decision-making; looping between outside-in challenges and the inside-out information; and, of course, the capacity to have new thoughts and creative responses rather than be locked in outdated mental models and addictive management behaviors.
But wise leadership is far more nuanced and complex than this. When creating the latest update of our 100 capabilities diagnostic and assessment toolkit for transformational leaders, in the tranche of metrics, titled Purposeful and Wise Leadership, we included these skills:
  • Make sense of complexity using multiple frames, worldviews, and perspectives—some of which may contradict—and explain how various frames/worldviews differ from each other
  • Reflect on thinking/learning style to identify and break through outdated cognitive biases, values, beliefs, stereotypes, and projections that are distorting sense-making (personal and shared)
  • Make sense of complex challenges with a conscious blend of linear analysis (expertise, science, data, intellect) and non-linear interpretation (empathy, insight, intuition, imagination)
  • Engage in perplexing and seemingly paradoxical situations with ever-deepening maturity—with a big passion and enthusiasm for breakthroughs yet a small, supple, and sensitive ego
  • Use a reflective mind and sensitive heart to make authentic, caring, and transparent decisions even in highly-charged and concealed situations—setting a clear moral compass
  • Reflect meaningfully on the “big questions” in life—and return to the biggest picture—to unlock clarity around, and long-term commitment towards, impact and legacy as a leader
  • Build reciprocal, interdependent, and interconnected relationships with communities and nature that inspire purpose-led projects and provide nourishment during challenging times
  • Inspire constant and courageous progress to be made toward organizational sustainability, lasting social impact, employee dignity, and purpose
  • Sense make for team members, giving them content for growth/healing, and a pathway of action

Now, while ChatGPT might give us some kind of Artificial Intelligence, as I also wrote in my book Now Lead the Change, there ain’t no such thing as Artificial Wisdom!

Wisdom—real, gritty, grounded—need to be proactively cultivated, refined, pruned, and unleashed—over many years, not months—by leaders that want to play their full part in ensuring their organizations thrive in complexity and uncertainty and regenerating our crisis-hit world.

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