The objective is simple: Better decision making. The only issue is that there are so many different views on what we mean by “better.” At the core of all decision making is the need to balance power with responsibility as the vehicle for resolving the ‘better’ question. This article explores why that is so difficult. It also argues that exploring the concept of wisdom can provide invaluable insights into how to achieve the most effective balance between power and responsibility, which is central to what our values mean in practice, as well as about how we incorporate ethics into our decision making.
Wise decision making, inevitably, involves moral/ethical choices. It is not surprising that comments we might define as wisdom are essentially comments about the relationship between people, or their relationship with society and the universe as a whole. These statements are generally globally recognized as relatively timeless and are insights that help us provide meaning to the world about us. Yet how often do they seem to be almost totally ignored in futurist, strategy, knowledge management, coaching, and even ethics literature? We appear to spend more and more time focused on learning knowledge, or facts—which have a relatively short shelf life-and less and less time on knowledge that overlaps with wisdom, which has a long shelf life. Why is that? What can we do about it?
Western sociological and management/leadership literature is full of references to power. How to get it? How to keep it? And how to prevent it being taken away? In parallel, but rarely in the same studies, there is also an enormous amount of literature on the concept of responsibility.
While power is the ability to make things happen, responsibility is driven by attempting to answer the question: In whose interest is the power being used? Yet the two concepts of power and responsibility are simply different sides of the same coin; they are the yin and yang of our behavior; they are how we balance our relations with ourselves with the interests of others, which is at the core of what we mean by our values. Power makes things happen, but it is the exercise of an appropriate balance between power and responsibility that helps ensure that as many ‘good’ things happen as possible.
Leadership is nothing more than the well-informed, responsible use of power. The more that leadership-related decisions are responsibility-driven (i.e., the more they are genuinely concerned with the wider interest), not only will they be better informed decisions, but the results are much more likely to genuinely reflect the long-term interests of all concerned, which also happens to be a sound foundation for improving their ethical quality and sustainability.
In essence, the above leadership definition is exactly what could also be called ‘Wise Leadership.’ In this context, the concepts of leader, leading, and leadership are used interchangeably, although it could be argued that ‘leaders’ are individuals (including their intentions, beliefs, assumptions, etc.), while ‘leading’ entails their actions in relation to others, and ‘leadership’ is the whole system of individual and social relationships that result in efforts to create change/progress. However, the above definition can be used to cover the integrated interrelationship of those three dimensions.
Briefly, wisdom can be considered as: “Making the best use of knowledge…by exercising good judgment…the capacity to realize what is of value in life for oneself and others….” Or as “the end point of a process that encompasses the idea of making sound judgments in the face of uncertainty.”
Of course, wisdom is one thing and ‘being wise’ is quite another. Being wise is certainly more than the ability to recycle wisdom. In essence, ‘being wise’ involves the ability to apply wisdom effectively in practice.
Wisdom is by far the most sustainable dimension of the information/knowledge industry. But is it teachable? It is learned somehow, and as far as I know, there is no values/wisdom gene. Consequently, there are things that we can all do to help manage the learning processes more effectively, although detailed consideration of these are outside the scope of this article.
In the end, the quality of our decisions depends on the quality of our conversations/dialogue; not only dialogue about information but, perhaps even more important, about the best way to use that information. In other words, it is about how our values influence the decision-making process. Dialogue both facilitates the transfer of technical knowledge and is an invaluable part of personal development. Having a quality dialogue about values is not only the most important issue we need to address, but it is often the most difficult.
We need to recognize that the more change that is going on in society, the more important it is that we make sure that our learning is as effective as possible. That is the only way we have any chance of being able to equate change with progress. If we want to have a better future, the first—and most important—thing that we have to do is improve the quality and effectiveness of our learning.
In recent years we have seen considerable effort to move people from the idea of ‘working harder’ to ‘working smarter.’ But what is really needed is to move beyond ‘working smarter’ to ‘working wiser.’ We need to move from being the ‘Knowledge Society’ to the ‘Wise Society.’ And, the more we move along that progression, the more we need to recognize that we are moving to a situation where the important issues primarily reflect the quality of our values rather than the quantity of our physical effort. If we want to improve the quality of our decision making, the focus needs not only to be on the quality of our information but, even more importantly, on the ‘right’ use of that information; hence the importance of improving the dialogue-related issues mentioned earlier.
Why are we interested in ethics and the future? The answer is, simply, that we are concerned with trying to make the world a ‘better’ place. But for whom? And how? To answer both questions we need to re-ask fundamental questions: Why do we not spend more time to ensure that the important messages that we have learned in the past (‘wisdom’) can be passed on to future generations? How do we ensure these messages are learned more effectively? These are critical strategy questions, and lie at the very foundation of anything we might want to call the ‘Knowledge Economy,’ although what is really needed is to focus on trying to move toward a concept closer to the ‘Wise Economy.’ This focus naturally overlaps with the greater attention now being given to values and ethical-related issues and ‘the search for meaning’ in management/leadership literature.
Overall, wisdom is a very practical body of sustainable knowledge (/information) that has an incredibly useful contribution to our understanding of our world. Such an approach would enable us all to make ‘better’ (wiser) decisions, lead ‘better’ lives, and experience wiser leadership, particularly in areas that involve (either explicit or implicit) ethics- and values-related issues. This is also closely linked to establishing more appropriate relationships between power and responsibility.
If we cannot take wisdom seriously, we will pay a very high price for this neglect. We need to foster greater respect for other people, particularly those who have views or reflect values that we do not agree with. This requires us to develop our capacity to have constructive conversations about the issues that divide us; that, in itself, would go a long way toward ensuring that we improve the quality of our decision making for the benefit of all in the long term. So help us move toward a ‘Wiser Society.’
This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (June Issue 2009, Volume 5, Issue 2).
Dr Bruce Lloyd
Dr Bruce Lloyd is Emeritus Professor of Strategic Management at London South Bank University.