Coauthored by Al Watts, founder of inTEgro, Inc.

Editor’s Note: This entry is part of the Fredrickson Thought Leaders in Learning series. For this guest blogging series, we’ve invited well-known experts in a variety of fields to address leadership-level learning and development professionals with their thoughts on topics of their choosing. Our hope is to prompt discussion around an expansive range of ideas and concepts.

Who’s the wisest person that you know? Why does that person come to mind, and what are some characteristics of other wise people you know?

Competency, skills and expertise are desirable, but cannot take the place of wisdom. There are competent, highly skilled and even expert sailors, for example, who may not be wise. There is a saying among Lake Superior sailors that comes to mind: “The Superior sailor uses superior judgment to avoid situations that require superior skills.” For an example closer to home, if some organizations in the news lately had exercised more wisdom, they likely would have saved a bundle on legal fees.

As we think of truly wise professionals that we know, here’s what comes to mind:

  • It’s not about them; they are relatively ego-less. Whatever the profession, it’s not about proving knowledge, displaying expertise or being right; there is a genuine focus on whomever they are helping and on arriving at the best solutions.
  • They do more asking than telling, and ask great questions. They are great listeners. They ask questions that cause us to think, reflect on our goals, diagnose a situation properly and often arrive at the best solutions ourselves.
  • They’ve “been there and done that,” usually multiple times under many different conditions and circumstances. We saw an article not long ago describing the false confidence that golfers can acquire after a successful afternoon on the driving range or consecutive great rounds at their favorite course. Golf pros, on the other hand, develop a kind of wisdom that comes from hitting many more shots on many different courses, in all weather conditions and circumstances. Wisdom does not come from one year of the same experience ten years in a row.
  • They display exceptional discernment and judgment. Discernment precedes good judgment; it is the capacity for keen observation, sensing subtleties, distinguishing true from false, questioning assumptions and evaluating alternatives.
  • They see the bigger picture. Amateur chess players typically react to threats or opportunities on a section or two of the game board at a time, and think one or two moves ahead. The wise, like great chess players, can take in a whole picture and its implications all at once. Wise professionals and leaders consider the 2nd, 3rd, 4th-order and beyond likely consequences of decisions and actions. They consider an immediate task or object as well as its context.
  • They see the “smaller picture” too. They see not only the bigger picture; they focus on details when appropriate, and distinguish important from unimportant details.
  • They don’t always “go by the book.” Perhaps because of the above, they are as or more attuned to the value of exceptions than they are to rules. To paraphrase the jazz great Miles Davis, they “don’t play what’s there; they play what’s not there.” Wisdom comes into play when there isn’t a rule book, manual or “standard operating procedures” to go by.
  • They are still learners. Have you noticed how the smartest (at least wisest) people don’t act that way? There’s a kind of humbleness that comes from a mindset of suspecting there is always another answer or way, and perhaps a better one. They have curious, questioning minds – a large part of why they are usually the wisest in a group.

What’s the big deal with wisdom, and why be concerned about it? For one thing, many of our wise human resources are heading out the door from attrition or retirement. “Knowledge management” was a hot topic a while back, and now “talent management” carries the day. What about “wisdom management?” What are we doing to acquire, cultivate and retain wisdom in our organizations?

Whether in-house or contracted, wise resources contribute value that is distinct from merely competent or even expert talent. Their depth of experience and personal characteristics bring a different dimension to problem solving. Instead of merely helping solve problems, they help us discern which problems are worth solving or how to avoid them in the first place. Competent, skilled or expert resources can answer our questions; wisdom helps us make sure that we are asking the right questions.

When facing a challenge in your organization, make sure there’s wisdom on your team. Sometimes an outside view helps – fresh eyes that have seen a lot and bring new perspectives, making sure that we’re asking the right questions and solving the right problems. We need to give more thought to the role of wisdom in our work and organizations – when we need it, how to get and grow it, how to leverage it and how to retain it.

Would others describe you as “wise?” What can you do to cultivate your own wisdom?

How can you cultivate, retain and leverage wisdom in your organization?

“The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions0”. — Oliver Wendell Holmes

About the authors of this Thought Leaders in Learning entry:

Al Watts is a veteran consultant and author of the book Navigating Integrity – Transforming Business As Usual Into Business At Its Best (Brio Books, 2010.) Al is the founder of inTEgro, Inc.

Lola Fredrickson is Chief Executive Officer of Fredrickson Communications.

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