In these most turbulent of times when enlightened leadership is needed more than ever, relying simply on knowledge, data, and information as the sources for our decisions can only direct us toward solutions too superficial to solve the complex problems before us. We must look instead to ground our leadership in a deeper and more subtle form of discernment: wisdom. Unfortunately, many of our contemporary leaders aren’t up to the job. They are everything but wise. Observing their behaviour, they aren’t really interested in the common good – to pursue what is in the best interest of a society. Instead, they’re taking advantage of the fact that there is often very little wisdom within crowds. And they know how to use this quality to their advantage. Clearly, however, in a day and age characterised by a pandemic, global warming, nuclear threats, terrorism, war, migration, dramatic income inequalities, and food shortages, we need more than ever leaders that have wisdom.
But why is there such a paucity of wisdom? Why do so many very knowledgeable people lack wisdom? And what is wisdom all about? There are no easy answers. Generally speaking, however, looking at the wisdom equation, it pertains to the ability to determine the truth and validity of accumulated knowledge, meaning that you have the power of discernment, to judge properly the correct course of action in challenging situations. Thus, wisdom can be looked at as the pairing of accumulated knowledge and the ability to synthesise this knowledge using the moral understanding of the world we live in. In other words, the primary difference between wisdom, knowledge, and intelligence is that wisdom involves a healthy dose of perspective and the ability to make sound judgements about challenges that come our way.
The window that opens to wisdom is “to know thyself”, a statement already found in ancient Greece, written above the temple of Apollo. In fact, it is self-understanding and self-knowledge that’s the road to all wisdom. And it is reflective thinking that turns learning into wisdom. Clearly, acquiring wisdom necessitates an inner journey of self-exploration. Wise people, however, often may not realise that they possess wisdom. As Socrates said so appropriately, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” It is knowing that you don’t know. And it is the willingness to confess how little you know.
Referring to my own life’s journey, I have spent quite some time reflecting on the things I have learned from the executives I work with. And thinking about my interactions with them, what words of wisdom still stick with me? What lessons from life did the executives I have worked with teach me? When I asked executives to imagine that they were asked to give a graduation speech to their university, what were the themes they would talk about? What lessons of wisdom came to mind?
Lesson 1. Confucius once said, “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
Obviously, he was familiar with the golden rule. The golden rule suggests that you always treat people the way you like to be treated yourself. What you don’t want to be done to yourself, you shouldn’t do to others. In other words, an important part of the wisdom equation is to have a compassionate outlook towards others. And even though the golden rule may sound like plain common sense, sadly enough, it is far from common. Many of the people you encounter in life don’t follow the golden rule. They don’t treat others with respect. Hence, in following the golden rule, before you say something to someone else, always ask yourself how you would feel if that person said the same thing to you. Here, you should also keep in mind that the way you make others feel about themselves says a lot about you. In addition, while following the golden rule, you should also remind yourself that no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. The recognition of this need for kindness is an important part of the wisdom equation. Furthermore, when you’re dealing with people who are offensive and irritating, try to look past such behaviour. And while trying to understand this complex bi-personal process, it may also be useful to keep in mind the words of Carl Jung: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Lesson 2. Another lesson from life that adds to the wisdom equation is having a forgiving attitude.
As we grow in wisdom, we tend to be more willing to forgive. Thus, a true mark of wisdom is that when someone hurts you, to try to understand why, instead of going into overdrive and wanting to hurt back. As has been said repeatedly, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Always remind yourself that anger can do so much harm. And when anger takes control, wisdom disappears. Frankly speaking, without forgiveness, you will easily get stuck in an endless cycle of hatred and retaliation. If you can forgive, however, you are liberating yourself. You are setting yourself free. And you should remind yourself that forgiving is an attribute of the strong. In addition, forgiving contains an element of self-compassion, meaning that you should also be able to forgive yourself. You should remind yourself that you are good enough.
Lesson 3. Another lesson from life pertaining to the wisdom equation concerns that dark emotion called envy.
As you may have found out for yourself, when you always compare yourself to others, it doesn’t make for a peaceful state of mind. Having your self-worth determined by others is not the way to live. By being in thrall to envy, you are only hurting yourself and the people around you. Frankly speaking, trying to lift yourself up by putting others down only makes for a miserable life. In contrast, wisdom implies that you enjoy your own life without always experiencing the need to compare it to the lives of others. It’s no wonder that wise people know how to keep their envious feelings within boundaries.
Lesson 4. Unfortunately, one basic human weakness is our apparent inability to distinguish our needs from our “greeds”.
Thus, if you are susceptible to greed, it is wise to remind yourself that it will always leave you dissatisfied, because you’ll never be able to get everything you desire. As a matter of fact, you can compare greed to a bucket that has a hole in the bottom. You will never be able to fill it up. What’s clear is that greedy people have linked their self-worth to their financial worth. Consequently, their main way of keeping score is to go after material things, power, and status. In other words, excessive greed isn’t really a financial issue; it has much more to do with having a troubled mind. It is an addiction. Unfortunately, by having a troubled mind, greedy people are also causing trouble to others. Therefore, if you want to pursue wisdom, you’re wise to keep in mind the comment of Seneca: “It is not the man who has little, but he who desires more, that is poor.”
Lesson 5. The Book of Proverbs mentions, “Even a fool who keeps quiet is considered wise, discerning, if he seals his lips.”
Everybody is wise until he or she speaks. In contrast, there can be real wisdom in not saying a thing. Wise people know when, and when not, to speak. Also, they recognise how important it is to listen. They may even have discovered that the less they talk, the more they will be listened to. In other words, wise people have become more fluent in silence. In contrast, foolish people speak more than they either see or think. They don’t reflect on the fact that words spoken are very difficult to take back. Furthermore, it is also important to listen to what’s not being said.
Lesson 6. Another sign of wisdom is to choose your battles wisely.
Wise people realise that not everything is worth fighting for. They know how to separate the important from the unimportant matters. They understand that it is sometimes wiser to let things be. Furthermore, wise people also realise that battles not fought aren’t necessarily lost. However, they have also concluded that keeping the peace is often much better than wanting to be right. In addition, wise people know that, as far as choosing their battles is concerned, never argue with a fool. As the saying goes, “Never wrestle with a pig; you both get dirty, and the pig likes it.”
Lesson 7. Courage is another important part of the wisdom equation.
Here, you would do well to keep in mind that courage is not the absence of fear, but it is the triumph over it. It implies overcoming the fear of things you think you can’t do – and not letting fear control you. Therefore, the art of living isn’t about choosing the safer options. On the contrary, life is about living a life worth living. Wise people find an aspect of truth in the statement of Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Many of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who had the courage to keep on trying when there seemed to be little or no hope at all. And it may be a truism, but it is better to regret the things you’ve done than to regret the things you haven’t done.
Lesson 8. Wise people know that happiness is not out there; it is within you.
In other words, you shouldn’t rely on others for your happiness. It is your responsibility. Also, wise people realise that part of the happiness equation is to cease worrying about things that can’t be changed. Instead, you should focus your energy on the things that you can change. In addition, happiness doesn’t come because of getting something you don’t have, but rather by recognising and appreciating what you do have. In other words, to be happy is very much a question of attitude; the way you look at life.
Wise people recognise that life moves like ebb and flood. In life, there are going to be highs and lows. In that respect, life is very much a journey, not a destination. During this journey, there can be change, growth, and discovery. And during this journey, you have a choice: you can acquire wisdom, or you can remain blind. Hopefully, while on this journey, the art of growing old graciously will be part of the wisdom equation. Unfortunately, as Benjamin Franklin once said, “Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.” But perhaps, we first need to be young and stupid in order to become old and wise. In summing up, however, the wisdom you acquire with the passage of time would be a useless gift if you were unable to share it with others. Thus, your challenge will also be to transfer your wisdom to the next generation.
The article is based on the author’s recent book, Leading Wisely: Becoming a Reflective Leader in Turbulent Times, published in April 2022. It can be accessed here: https://www.wiley.com/en-usLeading+Wisely:+Becoming+a+Reflective+Leader+in+Turbulent+Times-p-9781119860396
This article was originally published on September 20, 2022.
About the Author
Manfred Kets de Vries is the Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organisational Change and the Raoul de Vitry d’Avaucourt Chaired Professor of Leadership Development, Emeritus, at INSEAD. He is also a psychoanalyst. He is the author of more than fifty books and hundreds of articles. He is the recipient of many awards, including four honorary doctorates. The Financial Times, Le Capital, Wirtschaftswoche, The Economist, El Pais and Le Figaro have all judged Manfred Kets de Vries to be one of the world’s leading thinkers on management.