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Henley Leadership Group Blog

Five Ways Successful Leaders Demonstrate Their Wisdom At Work


Previously Published on Forbes.com

Some of us might argue that wise leaders are increasingly few and far between. But maybe our nation’s wise leaders are being obscured by the blustery, loud, obnoxious leaders that are kicking up so much dust. Look more closely and you’ll find the kind of leaders that can make a difference in our world and organizations.

That said, we need more wise leaders in our organizations, institutions and firms. Too many are short-term focused and willing to compromise values and ethics for personal gain. A case in point: Ron Cohen, CEO of Sig Sauer, a gun manufacturing company is facing jail time after completing a deal to sell up to $306 million worth of pistols to Colombia's National Police. And then there’s Mario Batali, who was forced to sell his interest in his restaurants and retail stores after being accused of sexual assault and harassment by many women.

What does it mean to bring wisdom as a leader? Andrea Bednar offers, “Wisdom goes beyond knowledge - wisdom brings together experience, humility, knowledge, responsibility, accountability, morality/integrity, intuition and strategic vision. Wisdom also means not reducing things down to a simple cause/effect or black/white view but bringing all of the complexity that belongs in the situation to the situation.”

I recently had a conversation with Dr. Marc Cooper, who has studied this subject. An interview he conducted with Kathleen Goldberg, a Portland-based psychotherapist, sparked my thinking about the essential elements for wisdom in leaders.

Through that process, I’ve come up with these five essential elements for cultivating wisdom as a leader:

  1. Transform your difficult experiences into a gift for others. If you have lived through difficulties at work, then you’ve no doubt taken away some lessons from those experiences. You can turn that learning into a gift for others. Perhaps you have endured several big layoffs and, as a result, are less anxious and afraid of another one. This is a unique perspective to be shared with others. Or maybe you have lived through several mergers or corporate redesigns. These are events that cause a lot of chaos and suffering among the ranks. Share with others how to navigate these transitions with grace. Make the way forward easier for others because of what you have lived through.
  2. Manage your impulsivity. Wisdom means that you have a firm hold of your reactions. In a shocking interview with Gayle King, R. Kelley totally lost his cool on camera. She sat completely still and waited for his tirade to end so that the interview could continue. This is managing impulsivity. I can imagine that Gayle King was a bit scared, mostly because of the intensity of the rant. But she managed herself beautifully. Deliver messages with poise and control. This is wisdom.
  3. Learn when to speak and when not to. Learning when you need to speak and when to stay quiet takes wisdom.  Think about why you feel compelled to say something. This kind of self-reflection will allow you to give voice to what truly matters and avoid adding to the sea of useless information and opinions. I always enjoy the team member who doesn’t speak up often, but when they do, people listen.
  4. Be patient with the process. Wisdom includes cultivating patience for the unfolding of people and processes. You know the old saying: “Trust the process.” In order to do this, you have to calm yourself in the midst of the storm. You extend compassion for the unfolding of life. A certain humility comes. Because you’ve been humbled by your own experiences, you know you don’t have the one-and-only answer, and you don’t have to be right.
  5. Balance the short-term with the long view. In my mind, there are three big things – a triple bottom line - to pay attention to as a leader: People, Profit and Planet.  Are the choices and changes you are going to make good for the triple bottom line?  In an HBR article, The Big Idea: The Wise Leader, authors Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi write, “CEOs need to ask if decisions are good for society as well as for their companies; management must serve a higher purpose. Companies will then start thinking of themselves as social entities charged with a mission to create lasting benefits for society. Unless companies create social as well as economic value, they will not survive in the long run.

Wisdom is defined as the quality of having experience, knowledge and good judgment; the quality of being wise. As Marcel Proust said, “We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”

Rather than becoming cynical about a gross shortage of wisdom in leaders, cultivate it within yourself. You are the one we are waiting for .