'W' is for Wise

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“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom” Thomas Jefferson



Corruption, greed, and abuse of power by leaders are the primary reasons for the current state of our society where we are witnessing the breakdown of our institutions. Today most of our leaders have adapted what Thomas Hobbes observed, “It is not wisdom but authority that makes a law.” 

 History has shown that when this occurs, it puts democracy at risk. History also shows that wise leaders are the most reliable check and balance to dictatorial leaders. 

Confucius, a teacher and a philosopher who lived from 550 to 479 BC, is an early example of a wise leader who advanced the belief that righteous rulers could help an entire people become better citizens, and warning that a vicious ruler would cultivate a cruel people. Citing China’s moral decline as the reason for the strife that existed, he advanced a return to virtue in both individuals and governance that could “restore the glory, harmony and progress of ages past.”

A more recent example of a wise leader, highlighted by Ronald Reagan - “whatever his reasons, Gorbachev had the intelligence to admit Communism was not working, the courage to battle for change, and ultimately, the wisdom to introduce the beginnings of democracy, individual freedom and free enterprise. As I said at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987 the Soviet Union faced a choice. Either it made fundamental changes, or it became obsolete. Gorbachev saw the handwriting on the wall and opted for change.”

In the work I have done in organizational dynamics, I have found that the majority of workers work under oppression. Rather than being developed, led, motivated, encouraged and coached, they are being overly controlled and regulated. 

In part, the advancement and integration of technology and artificial knowledge into the equation, reduces, and in many instances eliminates, the need for a human manager or leader. Uber is an example of this, where their drivers are controlled by an algorithm and constantly under surveillance, automated manipulation and threats of “deactivation”. What Uber and other organizations have yet to realize is “there ain’t no such thing as artificial wisdom.”


That being said, I have argued that Uber drivers may be better off than the majority of workers because most managers are woefully inept and unqualified to lead, motivate, encourage and coach. Also, in most situations the boss subordinate relationship and face to face interaction is limited to the annual, dreaded by both, performance review and when things go south. A Mental Health America/Faas Foundation survey of over 20 thousand North American workers across all sectors, called ‘Mind the Workplace’ found that only 35 percent could count on their supervisor for support when things get hard.

Also what I have found with most of the organizations I have worked with is a quest to populate their leadership and management ranks with the “best and the brightest” seeking out the “experts” in their field, only to find out the hard way, to coin a phrase, “a star salesperson does not always translate into a star sales manager’.

Simply put, leading and managing people is calibrating the ‘ 4 RIGHTS’ - having the RIGHT PEOPLE, doing the RIGHT THINGS, the RIGHT WAY, at the RIGHT TIME. Unfortunately, most in management and leadership have the wisdom to handle these, when combined, complex dynamics.


Wise leaders make decisions on an all fronts basis, which means understanding and addressing how decisions impact other areas and individuals. I have found that those with engineering backgrounds are wiser leaders than those who come from other disciplines. Jeffery Sprecher, CEO of the International Exchange, and a chemical engineer, explained it this way - his training “taught me about problem solving, and complex systems and the way things relate to each other.


Wise leaders use the collective wisdom of a crowd, which as James Surowiek explains, “is the process of taking into account the collective opinion of a group of individuals rather than a single expert to answer a question”. 

Over my career, in hiring or promoting people for leadership and management positions, in determining ability, qualifications and potential, besides the technical, I have looked for emotional intelligence and wisdom.

The definition of wisdom is best captured by work done in the late 1980’s on the ‘Berlin Wisdom Project’ at the Max Platt Institute for Human Development - 


“. Intellectual knowledge 
. Factual
. Superior judgment
. Excellent problem-solving skills
. The ability to learn from experience
. Humility 
. Emotional resistance, or the ability to rebound from a setback
. Openness, or the maturity to be comfortable allowing the world to see you as you really are
. A deep understanding of human nature, including empathy for people who are different or from other cultures”

Today we are hearing more and more - “Where are the adults in the room?” Well it’s not the adults that are missing, it’s the absence of wise people. Let’s all learn from Confucius- “By three methods may we learn wisdom. First by reflection, which is noblest; Second by imitation, which is easiest; And third by experience, which is the bitterest”.