CEO's Speak on Leadership - Wisdom
by Marie J. Kane

In previous articles we have explored Vision, Passion and Authenticity. Now let us consider Wisdom as an attribute of leaders. Is wisdom simply accumulated learning or knowledge? This is often the first thing that comes to mind when we think of wisdom. It is certainly important, but it is only one part of wisdom in a leader. It is possible to be "book smart", but overall not very wise. The wisest leaders have a deep understanding and keen discernment that allows insight into themselves and others. They can discern inner qualities and relationships even if they cannot always put what they know into words. They can be judicious, prudent, sensible and sane. A capacity for sound judgment, based in significant part on their wisdom, provides a foundation that enables them to choose sound ends and appropriate means.

What is the source of this wisdom? Wisdom comes easier to some than to others. Some leaders are inherently more self-aware and more tuned in to what happens in their lives. They learn from their experiences in the best way, accumulating both knowledge and perspective. They neither over nor under generalize. They actively seek to learn from each event in their lives, examining it and themselves, and storing away for the future the kernels of learning that they glean. Few people function at this level all the time, but the best leaders learn to function at this level increasingly and they actively provide a role model to encourage this attitude and behavior in others.

Is wisdom a function of age? Yes and No. It is true that more years provide more opportunity for learning and for building on that learning. It is also true that years alone account for only part of the equation. Years spent not growing and learning do not add to the fund of wisdom that is such a powerful, if somewhat intangible attribute of the best leaders. Conversely, more conscious and intense focus on learning and growing personally and professionally each day can increase wisdom markedly in anyone, regardless of age. In addition, some people create more experience and opportunities to grow in a short time than others do over much longer time spans. The most powerful combination is a life of conscious learning and growing, including ongoing self-development both personal and professional, undertaken over time. Part of the price to pay for a high level of wisdom is not going numb to the pain of some of life's experiences, not the least of which can be the self-assessment that goes with them. The rewards however are even greater than the cost because leaders inspire, guide and create positive change more by who they are than what they know. CEO's interviewed had this to say about wisdom.

Steve Black, President and CEO, Pathway Communities, Peachtree City, Georgia
Developer of Peachtree City and other premier planned communities.

"There are some things you know at fifty that you didn't know at 20 no matter how smart you are. When you have a gut feeling about a decision, I'd say in half the cases that gut feel might be wisdom and the other half are about integrity, that is what's right and what's wrong. When that gut feeling is coming out of wisdom, I might not be able to pin point it, but it's based on something that was similar in my past or some other realization I've had. I just know that what is on the table is or isn't going to work. That feeling comes from accumulated learning if you will, or wisdom. I think intuition and gut feel, or whatever you want to call it, is a combination of wisdom and values. It is for me. I would absolutely say that a leader has to have a high degree of common sense, good judgement, and gut feeling."

Ulf Petersson, President, Megadoor, Inc., Peachtree City
Manufacturer and installer of overhead doors for civilian and military aviation, mining, aerospace and others with similar needs.

"Wisdom comes from a lot of experiences. The more mistakes you make the wiser you'll be. We learn from our experiences. So if you've been out there making mistakes and trying and failing and learning and failing again and learning again, I think you'd be pretty wise. If you're going through life not taking any risks, you're not going to get it. Both the good or pleasant experiences and the bad ones are important, but I think bad or difficult experiences probably teach us ten times more than the good experiences. I also think there is what we once called "farmer sense" that is like common sense. I think a lot of people are tremendously intelligent, but they don't have a lot of common sense. I think common sense is very hard to teach people. I think farmer sense is simplicity and going back to the basics. A farmer is living in a very real world and everything is very practical and if they put that hat on I think a lot of leaders will do a lot better. I think learning experiences coupled with good common sense will give you wisdom."

L. B. "Bud" Mingledorff, President, Mingledorff's Inc., Norcross
Carrier HVAC distributor for the state of Georgia since 1939 and one of the largest Carrier distributors in the country.

"Wisdom is the ability to seek out and determine the truth in things and make decisions based on that determination of truth. When I say to see the truth, I'm not talking about moral truth or spiritual truth. I think that the ability to determine this kind of truth is not an inspirational thing, it's an open-minded thing. This includes the ability of a leader to separate truth from his own paradigms and his own way of viewing things and come up with real truth. A wise leader sees the truth regardless of how it plays against what he hoped it would be. A wise leader can separate fact from fiction regardless of his own closely held belief systems that shape the way he sees things. A wise leader can see the truth regardless of his own internal blocks. To me, a wise leader is just someone who can look at things, clear out the fog and base his decisions and his actions on truth and not based on just his perceptions. A leader who acts purely on his perceptions is not a wise leader."

Kouzes and Posner in The Leadership Challenge summarize the journey to wisdom nicely. "The mastery of the art of leadership is the mastery of oneself. Ultimately, leadership development is a process of self-development."

Now would be a good time to do a self-assessment and ask yourself "How am I doing on my journey to wisdom and where am I in relation to all these aspects of wisdom?" A good ongoing tool to use is to ask yourself in situations "What can I learn from this?"

N.B. This article was originally published in Competitive Edge Magazine.

Marie J. Kane has been an executive coach and corporate consultant for 20 years. She specializes in innovative approaches to executive development with a special emphasis on individual and group virtual coaching. She is the author of a comprehensive team assessment and development process, creator of "The Leader's Way" executive development program and a co-creator of an integrated strategic and operational planning process as well as offering state-of-the-art employee selection and development systems integrated with performance management and organizational culture. Marie may be reached at , and visit for additional information.

Articles by Marie J. Kane | Many more articles on Creative Leadership, Competitive Strategy and Executive Performance in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2002 by Marie J. Kane. All rights reserved.

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