The wise leader is more necessary today than ever. We need leaders with good judgment, common sense, humility, self-awareness, and purpose.
In one of my recent posts, I argued that most management literature was crap, and I singled out, among other dreadful tropes of the genre, the books trying to explain to the reader how leadership works and what it takes to be a great leader. I wouldn’t want to fall into the same sins myself, but today I would like to write about leadership, specifically the need to have more wise leaders.
I want to avoid falling into the same mistakes as the management gurus I was criticising in my post, so I won’t list the great leader’s competencies, traits, or capabilities. Instead, I would like to write about wisdom in general and why I think it is an important value to live by and aspire to for everybody, but especially our leaders.
Wisdom is as old as time. It’s something ancient philosophers and religious leaders talked about thousands of years ago, but that is still as relevant today. Wisdom is a crucial feature of living a virtuous life. It is also essential to good leadership.
What is wisdom? That is the question…
When talking about a word, the easiest way to learn what it means is to find a definition in a respected dictionary. However, when talking about such an abstract concept as wisdom, it is not that easy, and a dictionary definition may fall short of all the broader ramifications of such a rich concept.
The Cambridge Dictionary, for example, defines wisdom as follows:
“The ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments”
Is it a good definition? Certainly. Does it cover all the intricacies of the concept of wisdom? Certainly not. Indeed, wisdom is about knowledge, experience, good judgement and common sense, but it goes beyond that.
Ancient philosophers, the most famous trifecta formed by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, or my beloved stoics Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, for example, pondered on the concept of wisdom and asked themselves what made a wise man (sadly, they mostly talked about men, and they didn’t think much about the idea of wise women back then).
Socrates, the (philosophical) father of them all, had the following to say on the topic: “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
Here Socrates is talking about the humility of the wise person, who knows enough about the world and their own knowledge to realise they still have a lot left to learn and understand. This is obviously in line with Socrates’s most famous line: “I only know that I know nothing”. Socrates was considered the wisest man of Antiquity, and if we take both his quotes above to their conclusion, he seemed to think he fulfilled the main rule of total wisdom, that is, to realise he knew nothing.
Two thousand years later, Shakespeare said it differently, but the meaning was the same: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”.
Another thing wise people seem to have in common is self-awareness and self-knowledge, an important concept we have treated already in another post. As Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
I cannot but agree with him. The first step towards wisdom is knowing oneself: our strengths, biases, limitations, worldviews, perspectives, and emotions, and how all these inform the way we think, feel, act, react and behave.
Thus, the wise person has good judgment and common sense, often acquired through life experience, but is humble, knows their limitations, and has excellent self-awareness and introspection.
Wise men and women
I always liked wisdom as a concept and a value to be cherished. Since I was a kid, I loved the idea of one day becoming a wise old man, preferably with a long white beard. I aspired to become a wise man and be respected for it. In our fast-moving society concerned with productivity and following the latest fad, where youth and good looks are idolised, we no longer respect old wise men and women. That’s a shame.
You don’t necessarily need to be old to be wise, although life experience helps develop that wisdom. I know kids too wise for their age, and I also know older people who are fools with not one ounce of wisdom. Age and experience help sometimes, but they aren’t a necessity.
I want to advocate for the recovery of wisdom as an essential value in our society, to put it again on the pedestal where it used to be historically and has always deserved to be, but from where it was knocked down a while back.
Wisdom is an important facet of any human being, and it is something we should all aspire to achieve. This is even more the case for anyone who wants to be called a leader.
The Wise Leader
I must admit I am not the first one who thought about the concept of the wise leader. I first read the idea in this whitepaper from the leadership and coaching expert Paul Lawrence, and I loved it. Dr Lawrence goes much deeper than I into the concept of the wise leader, so it is worth a read if my post has picked your curiosity.
I thought the concept of wisdom matched perfectly with the idea of leadership. Then I realised that wisdom was actually a necessary characteristic of any true leader.
Leaders are not just people managing other people and telling them what to do. Leaders have a responsibility towards their teams, their organisations, and, dare I say it, their communities and society at large. Leaders have an essential role to play in any company and community; without good leaders, it is impossible to have good companies and communities. This means our leaders don’t need just to have good analytical and decision-making skills, be strategic and have great emotional intelligence. Good leadership goes beyond that. We need wise leaders more than ever.
Following up on what we said above, we need leaders who lead with humility and are aware of their shortcomings. They know that they don’t know it all, and they are open to learning, being challenged and making mistakes.
Being a wise leader means having that super-power called self-awareness. It is a super-power because it is at the root of many other powers. Self-awareness helps you realise what you do well and not so well, what you need to improve and what you can lean on more, when to say something and when to listen more. Self-awareness is the necessary first step toward learning and growth.
Wisdom also means having sound judgement and making the right decision more often than not. For that, you need experience, knowledge, and, above all else, plenty of common sense. They don’t teach that in school, but you learn by doing, making mistakes, and having the right approach and mindset.
Most important of all, the wise leader has a purpose. A wise person knows what is right and uses that knowledge as a compass.
Same with the wise leader: they understand what is right for their teams and society and try always to do the right thing. They have a purpose that goes beyond just financial results. Paradoxically, this is the main reason for people following them. This is what makes them great leaders.
As Simon Sinek told us many times, people follow, buy or engage with a WHY, not a HOW. Tell them why we are doing something, and you’ll engage them.
People follow the wise leader because they have a purpose, they have a WHY, and they do the right thing.
We need more wise leaders because they will bring the results, have engaged teams, and be the best leaders you can get for the work at hand. We also need wise leaders because they will do the right thing and have a purpose aligned with what our world needs today. We live in challenging times, and that’s why we need wise leaders more than ever.
And you, what are you doing to become wiser every day?