Ancient wisdom offers many learnings as we develop future-proofed leadership. Here, Trevor Hudson suggests it might even be found in unexpected places.
In my experience, everyone has had wisdom in their life. They have a person, an aunt, grandparent, parent or mentor who has helped them answer a complex question just when they needed it. In other words, on some level, most people recognise and value wisdom. The ‘virtue’ of wisdom, as Aristotle described it, can only be appealing:
Now it is thought to be the mark of a man of practical wisdom to be able to deliberate well about what is good and expedient for himself…about what sorts of things lead to a good life in general.
In the modern age, the research of Judith Glück shows that ‘wiser’ people learn valuable lessons from life’s challenges and then live happier and more fulfilling lives. On the whole, they are more connected with nature, add more to others' lives and are less easily swayed by unreasoned rhetoric. Read Judith Glück's Wisdom Profile on evidencebasedwisdom.com for detail on how she defines wisdom.
I have been following the research on wisdom for over a decade now, initially as part of my dissertation, In pursuit of organisational wisdom, which aimed, as part of my MSc in business psychology, to understand the relationship between wisdom and organisation leadership. Subsequently, I’ve become interested in the role that ancient wisdom has in the modern world more as a means to continually grow personally and support coaching clients.
Wisdom has only really entered into the psychological realm (as opposed to the philosophical realm) in the last few decades. Fortunately, it can draw on many previous years of research into vertical development, and generally of our understanding of other corollary ideas such as good decision-making.
While we have an incomplete picture of how wisdom develops, vertical development theories (such as those of Jane Loevinger, Erik Erikson and Robert Kegan) help us appreciate that throughout life we continue to grow and evolve, gaining new capabilities as we do. Using those capabilities is something else though, and the most developed (wisest) among us aren’t widely distributed throughout society. Through understanding wise decision-making, in Igor Grossman's work, we know that emotional management (as measured through heart rate) is important in being able to take in all the required information and deal with it in a dispassionate (but not unfeeling) way.
As a thought experiment, I ask myself: "How would I go about making a wiser society?" The solution is highly dependent on which branch of wisdom research you attend to and so I see a threefold solution to this otherwise nebulous challenge.
Wiser reasoning: the short(ish) game
At least one of the ways of explaining ‘wise people’ is that they more frequently make ‘wise decisions’. In other words, most people are wise occasionally, so the goal could be to simply increase how often most people are wise. The conditions of which are ensuring that people have all the right information, that they correctly value that information, do not feel rushed to make a decision and can personally distance themselves from it, at least temporarily. Ensuring that government communication is designed to inform rather than lead to a conclusion, to reassure rather than create panic and that people feel democratically empowered rather than victimised by policy would go a long way. Sadly the political rhetoric of recent years in the UK has often been the antithesis of wisdom creation.
Wiser adults: the medium game
Anyone at any age can become wiser. Developed organically, wise people have gone through difficult circumstances and made meaning from them. That means they have been forced through circumstance, on at least a few occasions, to reconsider their worldviews. At this point some retreat into entrenched positions, while others step into a world of multiple perspectives where everything is a bit more fluid and a bit less set. This development through life makes wise decisions more likely (even when the conditions aren't entirely favourable).
Currently, we support growth through life stages – from children and adolescents into functioning adults – but not the continued growth through adulthood. The medium game would be to encourage adults to see wisdom as obtainable and learning as lifelong (as the RSA is doing through its Transforming lifelong learning project). It should also involve the insights that encourage wiser decision-making in the short game, open-mindedness (to different worldviews) and reflectivity (on life’s challenges) with the goal being the continual transformation of the self.
Wiser education: the long game
The education system as it stands doesn’t create wiser people. It is designed, unsurprisingly, to create educated people. Fortunately, education, especially higher education, encourages a deep and broad understanding of subject matter which may, in time, also bring wisdom. But as the School of Life puts it:
We meekly assume that it must simply be impossible to teach ourselves the sort of emotional skills whose absence we pay such a heavy price for, impossible to instruct anyone in love or wisdom, fulfilment or kindness.
So my final pillar for a wiser society would be to introduce the universal virtues of courage, wisdom and love, at the earliest possible stage in education. The early version of wisdom would be little more than the thinking skills that are currently reserved for degree students. Then we can look more to decision-making and broadening of social perspectives in secondary (high school) education. Finally, at college/university age, we should ensure the generation of wisdom is accorded as much value as the creation of new knowledge. I for one want to be certain that anyone with a PhD-worth of knowledge also has the accompanying sagacity in how to use it.
Overall it is hard to say exactly what benefits a wiser society might bring (over, or alongside a more educated society for example) but it is hard to believe it wouldn't be beneficial. The risk comes from overly codifying wisdom and not recognising it as a long, deep project that may last many decades before reaping benefits. But this comes to another feature of wisdom, particularly in organisations. And that is that we must value long-term, difficult and strategic projects, rather than simply looking for (and privileging) predictable outcomes.
Trevor Hudson is a coach, trainer and consultant concerned with developing wiser leadership, human-centric organisations and future-proof cultures.
What benefits do you think a wiser society might bring? Perhaps some disadvantages come to mind. Start a discussion in the comments section below.
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