7 Wise Moves to Wisdom

Man in jacket overlooking a lake and mountain filled horizon

As our global leaders sit down in Paris and contemplate the future of our planet, I wonder - did you know that in 2014 the World Economic Forum published a report on the Top 10 Trends expected for 2015?   It revealed that Trend No 3 was a Lack of Leadership.   Nothing new here I think to myself, as we lurch from crisis to crisis across our global village.   What does feel new is that the burning platform for change is getting a bit hotter.   At least we are talking about leadership in from a different place than we were 20 or 30 years ago.

I think that there’s a case to be argued that we all have to play a role in this.   That it isn’t all down to our global leaders, our politicians, our corporations and the system; although this isn’t about letting them off the hook. 

Leadership behoves us all.   If leadership is about showing up for what you care about, taking a dignified stand to employ your talent and skills in what matters to you, we all get to be leaders.

What we need to be able to do is employ our passions and our talents cannily.   We need to employ them with wisdom but what really is wisdom and how is it developed? 

We live in a world that values knowledge and information.  How many years has it been since ‘to google’ became a recognised verb, reflecting our ability to access any information we required at any point in time?    We fill our children’s heads with information so that they can pass tests and exams but do we teach them to be ‘wise’?   

The Oxford dictionary defines wisdom as ‘the quality of having experience, knowledge and good judgement’ but I think that there is something that is slightly more nuanced than this definition, if one takes it literally. 

Nonaka and Takeuchi in ‘The Big Idea: The Wise Leader (HBR 2011) refer to the ‘Practical Wisdom’ of Aristotle.  Practical Wisdom, according to their studies is experiential knowledge that enables people to make ethically sound judgements [often for the common good].   

They ask the question of why the acquisition and application of knowledge doesn’t always result in ‘wisdom’.  We can all think of people who are very knowledgeable but significantly lacking in common sense.

The nuance of wisdom can often be felt.  When someone speaks something wise to us, we are offered something new, a new perspective, a gap opens up that we hadn’t previously observed.  How can we learn to do this for ourselves?  For me there is a sense of some intangible quality that I can’t quite grab hold of but feel that I know it when I experience it.   Where does wisdom come from and how is it developed? 

Human beings have a wealth of capacities.  We are logical, rational, analytical, intuitive, spiritual, at times even mystical.  We are mind, body and soul, or if you prefer, head, heart and spirit.    I would argue that our wisdom comes from the alignment of these dimensions, these facets of ourselves. 

Wise leadership is dependant upon much more than our ability to cognitively acquire information (facts, models, theories) and apply it.  Wisdom for ourselves depends upon our ability to understand deeply who we are and how we observe and experience the world.   If we throw in some curiosity and reflection we can arrive at a place where we start to understand how or where we might be able to produce new meanings and interpretation for ourselves, of and potentially for others. 

The evidence would suggest that wisdom comes from an inner knowing.  The ability to take what is known and synthesize this with what is felt and sensed at a deeper biological and physical level.  Intuition plays a big part.  As we now know thanks to the work of Daniel Kahneman (and others) we are far more emotionally led than we typically acknowledge.   Wisdom would seem to come from that place where we can read situations, contexts, relationships and connections, combine it with our insights on the deeper motivations and desires of self and others, work through consequences and impacts, and somehow arrive at the next wise move. 

So how do we develop a deeper inner knowing from which we might be ‘wise’?   

We need to know who we are – well.

In the first instance we have to know who we are, how we are.   I would tentatively suggest that there is no end to knowing who we are, that we are so layered, so deep that we could spend a lifetime exploring what makes us tick, how we show up, for what purpose and how we got to be that way.    This requires us to learn what kind of ‘observer’ we are.

The way I typically describe what I mean by ‘observer’ to my clients is this.  Imagine you and I were sitting in a coffee shop one day and we see a car accident.  We observe the same accident.  However the way in which we respond physically and emotionally, the way in which we interpret events and re-tell them will be different.  This is because we are unique individual observers in the world.  What is true for me, is different for what is true for you, even though the event was the ‘same’.    Once we understand the observer that we are (or at least have some insights) we can then begin to create if we want to, different realities for ourselves.  This isn’t about going of into some fantasy land, but simply, being able to look at what else there might be that we haven’t previously seen.  

Understand the context

We need to understand that we do not operate in isolation.  Whilst we live in highly individualised societies, in reality we operate in a context.  Our actions, our wisdom is influenced, applied within and from that context.  The two are inseparable.    Our ability to quickly grasp the meaning and essence of any situation and the people within it is critical to our ability to understand the operational context. 

Pay attention to the inner world

Our inner world offers us a mine of information.  Developing our ability to tune into the full range of our sensations, our feelings, emotions, moods, and inner dialogue we are cultivate for ourselves yet more perspectives on the situation and what might be needed.   Wisdom comes from paying attention to what comes from within as well as ‘without’. 

Be non-judgemental, be accountable and be responsible

Being judgemental with ourselves deprives us of the learning opportunity.  Being non-judgemental doesn’t mean letting ourselves of the hook, being accountable and responsible in the service of wisdom, requires us to reflect, review and learn from our actions and those of others.

This came home very recently when I found myself driven quickly to anger.   My reaction was inconsistent with the situation and I could have easily moved to shame and guilt.  Instead, I became be curious about the deeper reason for my outburst.  I had to move beyond the circumstances and ask why, given what I know about myself, I was so deeply triggered.  Listening to the real inner voices behind my angry words, I learnt something new.  I learnt that I have still have work to do.  As for accountability and staying on the hook, I apologised, explained the inner conversation, and asked for some support to move forwards.

Cultivate different perspectives and possibilities

We are familiar with the idea of standing in another’s shoes.   I think we should be actively cultivating different perspectives and possibilities.    I have engaged in so many coaching conversations where the client has one or two perspectives on a situation and yet there are many more that can be considered.   This is so important for our relationships with others.  Given that for the vast majority of us, relationship in some shape or form is a constant in our lives, the ability to see another possibility, another scenario for a person’s words, actions or mood is invaluable. 

Reflect on the common good

Research on Wisdom suggests that there is always an element of thinking beyond the immediate, being able to see different moves ahead and having genuine concern for the greater good.   The wise actions, the wise words are often in the service of something greater than individual gains.  Finding purpose for our actions – for the purpose of what – would I do or say this, supports wisdom. 

Commit to the path of wisdom – for the benefit of all

The path of wisdom could easily be a lifetime’s path.  If we think of the great and the good, those we hold up to be exemplars of wise words and acts, we could assess that their work was never complete.  Whilst they gave us many gifts of wisdom they stayed in their practices for a lifetime (Mother Theresa and Ghandi, the obvious ones immediately spring to mind)   I would conjecture that there are always new levels of wise knowing available to be discovered. 

Perhaps if we stand up wisely for what we care about we might one by one and collectively start to make a beautiful difference in the disordered and chaotic world that we have created.