Our Journey to Leadership Wisdom, Evolving Beyond Smartby Gregory Stebbins, EdD

Most leaders are a product of what they view as working best in their environment. As they start, they receive recognition by being the smartest in their area of expertise. For example, a junior accountant works his or her way up to a senior accountant by their knowledge of accounting based on the accumulated knowledge of what to do and how to do it. Creating a habit pattern of continuing the accumulation of knowledge.

Early in my wisdom journey, I focused on the attainment of knowledge. I can remember very early in my education that I wanted recognition for being smarter than my fellow classmates. I had very little empathy or compassion for other students while developing my knowledge. For example, when I was 13, the teacher, a very wise person, asked the class how many elements were listed on the table of elements during the first day of science class. She gave 112 elements, which she thought was the correct answer. From discussions with my father, a nuclear physicist, I knew that there were 113 elements and said so in class. When the teacher asked me the name of the 113th element, I couldn’t remember. She added, “Well, when you get the information, why don’t you bring it in and share it with your classmates.”

That night I asked my dad about the 113th element, and we found a Scientific American article about Lawrencium that was two years old. I brought it into class the next day, and the teacher did share it with the other students. As class ended, she called me up to her desk and waited for the rest of the students to leave. She told me that I was smarter about science than the rest of the class. She proposed that I not raise my hand to answer her questions until after all of the other students had gone before me. That coaching provided me with my first step in understanding empathy and compassion, learning the process of becoming wise versus just smart.

In terms of knowledge, I knew that a tomato was a fruit, not a vegetable. I was missing the wisdom piece, which did not add the tomato to a fruit salad.

Early in my leadership career, I added many helpings of tomato to my leadership fruit salad to demonstrate how smart I was. At the same time, my efforts seemed to push others away from me. As I learned how to unpack my personal and leadership experiences and examine how I was integrating my knowledge and bringing forward my heart’s wisdom, the truth of each wisdom moment took on a brighter shine.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This statement seems a bit harsh to me. From my experience, wisdom builds upon our examined experiences. Many people equate wisdom with people’s age only because of their different experiences. While that may be true, I’ve worked with enough emerging and senior leaders that haven’t examined their experiences to any great depth. They often declare themselves too busy to examine their experiences. As a result, they miss opportunities to make the kind of decisions that move their organizations, paraphrasing Jim Collins, from good to great. The secondary outcome is repeating the prior experience, often multiple times until the wisdom moment is learned.

The world has entered a quickening that takes our current leaders for a wild roller coaster ride. For many, this quickening is causing concern instead of joy. Our current leaders could choose to open themselves to the process; however, many are shutting down and shuttering both their minds and their hearts. The result is people entrenched in work­ing from “me” instead of “we.”

We are moving from the information and knowledge eras into the emerging era of wisdom. This age will lead us to a wisdom-based economy. While the term “Wisdom Economy” was first presented by Earl Cook in the early 1980s, the transformation of leaders that heralds the com­ing of this economy is just now starting to grow at an ever-increasing rate.

Information has become a commodity. People with an Internet connection have access to all of the information in the world, regardless of where they are in the world. This amount of information far exceeds the legendary libraries of Alexandria, Egypt in ancient history and rivals such contemporary collections of data as the U.S. Library of Congress. Available hardware and soft­ware store and analyze the accumulated information of humanity. Using pattern recognition allows us to construct deeper and deeper knowledge.

So, we know much about information. Still, most of this doesn’t begin to tap into the heart of humanity. As Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “we are still in the dis­covery process of identifying our purpose.” The discovery of purpose is not in accumulating information or knowledge that results from ever-finer sifting. We locate it in our experience of life through self-reflection.

The wisdom economy will be more focused on bringing forward each person’s unique gifts. Some are predicting a golden age utopia for the wisdom economy. That identical prediction has taken place with the transformation between ages, from hunter-gatherers through the industrial revolution into the knowledge economy. Had these predictions been correct, we would not have any conflicts, and the planet would be an ecological paradise. I think we can all safely agree that hasn’t happened.

Some fellow humans seem locked into a certain age, different from most humanity. For example, there are still people whose existence is gov­erned by the day-to-day hunter-gatherer strategies. You can find them in any large city living on the street and storing what they need in the shopping cart they are pushing in front of themselves.

So how is the wisdom economy different from the knowledge economy? Here are some basic ideas.

The knowledge economy always wants more. The wisdom economy understands the con­cept of enough. Wisdom asks who profits should we gain the world but lose our humanity. It understands that possessions don’t define a person. Wisdom defines prosperity as a state of being, not possessing. We only value accumulation without the experiences and insights that come from the essence of a person.

The knowledge economy demands qualifications. The wisdom economy insists on quali­ties. Our world today is awash with qualifications. The most frequent job interview question is, “What are your qualifications.” While important, they don’t make you a more productive leader or even a better thinker. The wisdom economy will recruit for depth of understanding as well as aptitude.

The knowledge economy is technological. The wisdom economy is both technical and human. Each individual’s ability to integrate the internal messages from their head, hunch, and heart is the foundation of the wisdom economy. The knowledge economy is quick to see the next technological wonder leading to an increased personal fortune, regardless of the unintended consequences. The wisdom economy uses technology as a tool and is more interested in understanding the need for humanity to function for the highest good of all concerned.

The knowledge economy is competitive. The wisdom economy is collaborative. The knowl­edge economy assumes that if we know more than others, we will get what they have or keep them from getting what we have. It believes in zero-sum games. The wisdom economy recognizes that abundance is not only possible; it has appeared in every previous economy. Where the knowledge economy is “me” focused – your disadvantage is of no concern as long as I succeed – the wisdom economy looks to “we.” At a profound level, it accepts that your disadvantage is also my problem. Wisdom recognizes that when we all grow together, abundance emerges.

The knowledge economy is innovative. The wisdom economy is reflective, asking toward what end is the innovation moving? It stops to consider all consequences. Sometimes this will mean we place a higher value on pushing the “pause” button until we evaluate all of the consequences.

How might our leaders be different?

  • The knowledge leader seeks to accumulate more qualifications from the outside. The wisdom leader has a more balanced inward/outward perspective, understanding obligations to herself and others.
  • Knowledge leaders focus on the objective, believing that all knowledge is possible. Wisdom leaders realize that knowledge changes and is more or less relevant based on their subjective experiences.
  • Knowledge leaders seek to control their external environment, while wisdom leaders seek to gain meaning from their environment through self-reflection and dialogue with others.

Our age of ignorance is slowly diminishing. Humanity now realizes the costs associated with reactions to our actions. All costs related to production, distribution, and consumption need consideration. No longer can we ship our problems to another country. It has become too expensive, not only in terms of dollars but at the cost to our collective humanity.

Unintended consequences are asymmetrical. For example, it may take a few years to cut down forests to plant food to feed the masses, but it might take decades to grow back trees that provide oxygen for all living creatures.

While asymmetric threats are multiplying, so are asymmetric solutions given the ingenu­ity of humanity for re-invention and innovation when pushed into a corner. We are evolving from linear processes, which are essentially about fragmented production, consumption, and waste, towards non-linear and circular processes with pervasive energy efficiency, holistic sustainability, and recyclability at the core of their design. Expect non-linear asymmetric solutions – highly imaginative, innovative, and integrated.

The wisdom economy is fueled more by active listening than talking. In our search for solutions; insight, context, and common sense are the keywords in the wisdom economy, not grabbing eyeballs, Internet speed, and elevator pitches.

Wisdom is transcendent. Transcendence does not mean other-worldly. We do not have to remove ourselves from the here and now to obtain it. We find wisdom right here, in the simple practice of being human. Everyone has the capacity for wisdom. Fewer people focus on developing it.

To accelerate transcendence requires that each leader begin to integrate head, hunch, and heart. Through deep listening of each person and cooperation between people, these asymmetric solutions appear.

Learning the process of wisdom development and applying that process to all aspects of life, both inner and outer, will diminish unintended consequences. We all start with roughly the same data. However, some astute people look at the relationships of that data and see the information patterns that produce knowledge. People are now learning to exercise their instincts and intuitions to help them decode their experiences to create insight into themselves and others.

We already have the answers. They emerge as we learn how to access information through head, hunch, and heart. Those who can connect with, integrate, and put into action these three qualities will be the treasured leaders in the wisdom economy.

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About the Author:

Dr. Stebbins has over three decades of experience coaching emerging and senior leaders in being more people savvy. A leader’s awareness, commitment, integrity and authenticity are directly shaped by their internal landscape (the habits of thought, emotion, imagination and action).