Developing practical leadership and management wisdom : Research review with Sarah Smith
In this episode we look at a research briefing around the topic of developing practical leadership and management wisdom
David: 00:00 Hi and welcome to the Oxford Review Podcast. I am David Wilkinson, the editor of the Oxford Review.
Sarah: 00:05 I’m Sarah Smith, contributing editor at the Oxford Review.
David: 00:11 Today, we’re going to be having a look at an interesting paper about practical leadership and management wisdom. So, just a quick look at the number of peer-reviewed research articles, on the following topics, tells you probably just about everything that you need to know about the overall research effort being put into the leadership or management wisdom. So in terms of numbers of papers, for all times, when you look at leadership decision-making, there is in excess of 2.6 million papers, peer-reviewed papers out there.
David: 00:46 In terms of management decision making, is in excess of 2.2 million papers. Then, when you start to come down to looking at papers for management wisdom, you’re looking at 674 papers. That’s across all time. In terms of leadership wisdom, you can half that, it’s 364 papers for all time. As you can see, it’s not exactly high on people’s agenda, and research agenda, or interest, really, within organizations.
David: 01:19 Although, I think that interest’s kind of starting to become more and more, as we go along. I don’t know. What do you think?
Sarah: 01:25 Yeah. Absolutely. I think it’s something that, increasingly, is a topic. It’s attracting more research, and interest. Certainly, both from the kind of management and leadership side, and also from the kind of psychology side. There’s a real acceleration, I think, in interest in this area.
David: 01:43 Yeah. I’m finding people in organizations are becoming more and more interested in leadership anyway.
Sarah: 01:48 Yeah. Yeah.
David: 01:49 So, hopefully, we’ll start to see that figure goes up. so anyway, I’ll quickly do a preview of the research briefing. Then, we’ll have a quick discussion about it. Not only is wisdom, the poor relationship of decision-making., it’s fascinating to note that they’re approximately twice as many management wisdom papers than leadership wisdom papers, which I find quite interesting. Why would that be? I’d have thought it would have been the other way around?
Sarah: 02:15 Yes.
David: 02:15 You know?
Sarah: 02:15 Yeah.
David: 02:19 It’s a bit weird, that. Previous studies have found that the concept of practical wisdom is somewhat of a kind of a slippery concept, I suppose. The ambiguity around being able to define what wisdom is, in the first place, and how to become wise, how to have wisdom, probably accounts for some of the lack of attention.
David: 02:37 A number of previous researchers have concluded that the idea of practical wisdom is so fuzzy and difficult to analyze that providing research-based conclusions and guidance, with any level of certainty, there’s been reason. Just about virtually impossible, I suppose. The situation hasn’t been helped by the fact that there’s little agreement between researchers about the tools and methods for conducting research into practical wisdom anyway.
David: 03:03 A new study, by a team of researchers from a range of universities, in Germany, has conducted a wide-ranging synthesis of research into practical leadership and management wisdom. In an effort to bring some clarity to the field, and to provide a framework to help thinking about the topic. Now, there’s been a significant increase in research activity around practical leadership and management wisdom in recent years. Largely, as a direct result of very public leadership and management failings.
David: 03:35 The interest is largely being generated as a result of concerns about ethical decision making by businesses and governmental leaders and managers. You know, as we’re recording this, we’ve got a kind of Brexit going on. the whole thing about wisdom speaks right into that, and whether our political leaders are being wise at the moment, or not. There’s a moot point, right?
Sarah: 03:56 Just about.
David: 04:03 Additionally, there’s been more recent realization that, as one 2015 study put it, management relies heavily on … How do you pronounce this, francis?
Sarah: 04:13 Phronesis.
David: 04:13 Phronesis.
Sarah: 04:14 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
David: 04:16 Thanks Sarah.
Sarah: 04:16 Yes.
David: 04:17 All practical wisdom. Many approaches to leadership management thinking and decision making are to mechanistic, formulaic, and miss or ignore wider ethical and principled issues. This explosion of interest can be seen in the fact that, in 1990, one research review could only find two research papers about management wisdom. The fact that there has now being over 650 studies since 1990 is an indication of the growing interest in that area. Let’s just have a quick look at where wisdom tends to be studied.
David: 04:54 It tends to be studied across three primary subject areas, which are philosophy, psychology, and theology. From a philosophical point of view, the philosophical treatment of practical wisdom has tended to focus on a number of core issues. There are 14 core issues, here. The first one is cultural heritage and practical advice for daily living from history. Then secondly, traditional virtues such as honesty of patience.
David: 05:27 Thirdly, decisions about what is appropriate in different circumstances. Fourth, transformational and transcendental experiences of wisdom, particularly to do with spiritual experiences. Fifth is an understanding of intuition, compassion, and affect or emotions. Number six is the development of the character and virtue. The seventh area that philosophy tends to look at, in terms of wisdom, tends to be how to make sound judgments and take sound actions.
David: 06:03 Number eight is in thinking and making wise choices and decisions. Number nine is on becoming virtuous and how to become virtuous. The 10th area tends to be around wisdom as a sense of balance. Number 11 comes in at wisdom is an ability to have foresight. The 12th area of research, in terms of the philosophy of wisdom, is around self management. Excuse me. Emotion regulation and knowledge.
David: 06:37 Then number 13 is wisdom, and professional knowledge, and the ability to make wise judgments, which I guess is about a lot that we’re going to be talking about within management and leadership decision making. Then, wisdom is an ability to entertain, and navigate diversity perspectives, and viewpoints. Is there anything that strikes you about that list, Sarah?
Sarah: 07:01 No. Well, except that I think one of the things that sort of the philosophical study of wisdom. It’s interesting, because I think you can go back to Aristotle and some of the kind of early thoughts, philosophical thoughts around wisdom. Actually, there was quite a gap, even in the philosophical literature around exploring wisdom, but a kind of resurgence of interest there. I think one of the things that’s interesting about it, when you go into organizations, and you talk to managers, and leaders, people like you or I, wandering around on the streets is that there’s still this assumption that comes that I think is underpinned very much by some of the philosophical approaches to wisdom, which is that it’s this kind of pinnacle of human development. That it’s beyond the reach of an everyday person.
Sarah: 07:49 Therefore, is it even something that we can start to study, or think about, or has particular relevance in individual lives. What’s really interesting in that list is that I think there are some key things in there that you were saying. You look at some of the challenges organizations are facing that we’re facing globally, political challenges, stuff that actually requires something more than what our existing frameworks around decision making, and good judgment, and intelligence, and some of those sorts of things perhaps have to offer.
David: 08:20 The kind of ways that … Certainly, given some of the situations that are happening here in America right now, the way politicians are analyzing things.
Sarah: 08:29 Yeah.
David: 08:30 Wisdom transcends a lot of that.
Sarah: 08:33 Yes, yes. I think that transcends …
David: 08:35 Yeah.
Sarah: 08:36 That comes out, doesn’t it, in that list. They talk that self-transcendence, That bit about being able to transcend, and move beyond or above yourself and other people’s viewpoints, and being able to take that more detached observer perspective.
David: 08:51 I’m also interested in this idea that wisdom’s not for us.
Sarah: 08:55 Yeah.
David: 08:55 It’s kind of unreachable. I almost get this feeling of like somebody sat in a cave with a big, long beard. The wise guru.
Sarah: 09:05 Yes, meditating for 12 hours a day. Yeah.
David: 09:09 I just find it interesting that mere mortals, normal people, but also organizations skip over this idea of wisdom, and get into other things without even considering, as if it is untouchable somehow.
Sarah: 09:25 Yeah. No, I completely agree. I think that’s what’s really interesting about some of the work that’s emerging at the moment. It’s bringing an awareness and an insight into wisdom as a construct in such a way that means people can actually start to see some practical application for their own lives. It suddenly feels like it’s within grasp. There are some really interesting and exciting findings that are starting to emerge about actually its variability.
Sarah: 09:55 Contextual influences. Who are you spending time with? What kind of culture you’re operating in, within your organization. How does your team communicate? All sorts of things that can perhaps nudge us towards wiser thinking in a moment. None of us might aspire to end up perhaps potentially being that pinnacle of ultimate wisdom at all times, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t all be little bit wiser, some of the time, when it’s really needed.
David: 10:26 Yeah. I actually think that comes out in this study and some of the work that you’ve been doing, because we haven’t mentioned to the listeners yet about your background in terms of the masters that you’ve done around wisdom. Do you just want to talk a little bit about that?
Sarah: 10:43 Yes. One of the things that I’ve been really interested in is positive psychology. One of the areas that been really focusing on, in terms of my research in that topic area, is around wisdom and the development of wisdom. Particularly, looking at it through the lens of the psychological literature. My area of practice is I work as a leadership development consultant and coach with the large bulk of my work.
Sarah: 11:07 What really enormous interests me is how some of the findings and psychological literature about wisdom applicable to developing wiser insight about both themselves, personal wisdom. How have I, as a leader, have increased wisdom, insight, and self-knowledge that means I am able operate in a different way. Then, also collective wisdom. How, at an organizational level, can we have an understanding of wisdom that enables us to function and operate better, make wiser decisions about projecting into the future, et cetera.
David: 11:41 It feels more achievable, doesn’t it, when you look at it rather than from the idea of being the wise person to just becoming wiser. Feels a lot more achievable.
Sarah: 11:52 Yes.
David: 11:52 I feel like I’m nudging in a direction rather than achieving some kind of guru status where I’m always going to make wise decisions. As a human being, I know I’m flawed.
Sarah: 12:01 Yeah, yes. I think this comes out a little bit later. I know I’m jumping ahead to notes coming up in the paper. This idea of intellectual humility. Actually, just that realization is a really important part of wisdom. That I know I’m fundamentally flawed and that you have that frame around the way in which you think about things is an important part of it, actually.
David: 12:27 Yeah. Well, that kind of nudge into making wiser decisions, that realization that I may not be actually right here. It creates a mindset where you going to start to search for other information where you don’t shut down on things. I suppose that’s what this is talking about.
Sarah: 12:46 Yeah.
David: 12:46 About understanding a wider … Seeing things from different perspectives and being a bit more objective about it.
Sarah: 12:53 Yeah, completely. Yeah. Multiple viewpoints and being able to hold different ideas in mind, simultaneously. The ability to be able to deal with paradox, and that tension, and not rush to need to have a definite answer.
David: 13:12 Yes.
Sarah: 13:13 Not being overly attached to things.
David: 13:15 Trying to close it down.
Sarah: 13:16 Yes, yes.
David: 13:18 Just going off for a second. This thing about paradox is something that I’ve got very interested in my own area. There was a really interesting study done, last year I think he was published, about the Finnish police. After the crash in 2008, like most European countries, Finland found itself in a big deficit situation. In order for austerity, to start cutting back.
David: 13:50 What it realized was that it needed to make efficiencies in lots of the public services. Nothing unusual, there, in Western Europe after the crash. One of the things that it did was that it went to the police service. The police service in Finland, like the UK, was made up of whole series of different forces. Can’t remember how many. In the UK, there are 47 different police forces.
David: 14:14 They said, “Right. Okay. We need to make economies of scale, here. What we need you to do is we need you to flatten the structure so there aren’t all these … We want largely a national police force, all buying the same uniform. We want you to standardize as much as possible so that you cut costs.” Then, what they said … That was one side of the paradox, standardization. The other side of the paradox, without realizing they set this paradox up, was that, “We want you to make sure that you’re dealing with the needs of the local people.”
Sarah: 14:51 Okay, okay.
David: 14:53 Well, like any country, Finland’s made up of people who live in the middle of cities, metropolitan areas, and people who live out in Lapland, in tents.
Sarah: 15:08 Yeah.
David: 15:09 In the permafrost. Policing those kinds of areas have very different requirements. I was a police officer. I was a police officer in the Lake District. Our requirements there were very different from the inner city requirements.
David: 15:25 Different knowledge of laws, different procedures, different ways of dealing with people. The whole thing’s different. What the government had done, without realizing it, is it set up this paradox of standardization and localization, so that people would be dealt with as they needed to be. What actually happened, and this was the interesting thing about the study, is that they found that, firstly, the police didn’t recognize the paradox.
Sarah: 15:51 Okay.
David: 15:51 This is the wisdom thing. The wise thing would have been to stand back and say, “We’re in a paradoxical situation.” Then, what they found they we’re doing was that they were going from one extreme to the other. They were standardizing everything. Every now and again, they’d jump out into a local issue, just trying to deal with something to do with fishermen up in the north of Finland. How to police them differently than you would people in a city, for example.
David: 16:22 Not being able to deal with that in a standard way, trying to create a standardized policy. Then, jumping back into the thing that they were comfortable with, which was creating a standardized … Because they’re a uniform service, into a standardized process, and hierarchy, and things like. What came out of that, from a psychological point of view, is that, as human beings, we tend not to be very good at dealing with paradoxes.
Sarah: 16:43 Yeah.
David: 16:44 It’s largely that inability, we get involved in the detail too quickly without standing back and saying, “What’s the structure of this.” I guess that’s what you’re talking about when you’re talking about practical wisdom?
Sarah: 16:55 Yes, I think that’s a really important part of it. It’s the being able to sit in both of those perspectives. Let’s say from the perspective of the standardization, what are the benefits and advantages that come from being able to create a degree of predictability and certainty about how we operate? The set of rules by which we can all function, which has enormous cost savings and all sorts of other things. Energy efficient, streamlined decision making, a lot of those sorts of things.
Sarah: 17:24 Then, on the other end, you’ve got the need to be able, as individuals, to use your own wise judgment in order to be able to deal with emerging circumstances or situations you find yourself in. Actually, from a collective point of view, this is about being able to step back, and hold both of those things in mind, and see both playing out in front of you. That third perspective of being able to almost transcend both, see the paradox, and see the tension that arises in relationship to each other, and be able to hold that. Be able to move forward and still work, in spite of it.
David: 17:57 Even though you’re dealing with one side, you’re still aware of the other side. It’s a level of objectivity?
Sarah: 18:03 Yeah. Absolutely it is. Sometimes, in the literature, I think they often use terms about self-transcendence, which has multiple different … I think it can mean very different things based on where you’re reading it. What the context is in which it’s being said, from that spiritual idea of self transcendence. In this circumstance, what I’m talking about is transcending your own individual viewpoint.
Sarah: 18:28 You’re able to take almost a bystander perspective. You can step out, fly on the wall. In some of the psychological research that’s being done looking at wisdom, one of the things that they’ve tried, which seems to make a real difference in people’s ability to be able to access wiser reasoning, is this idea of it getting them to imagine that they’re on a magic carpet. That there are afloat up above.
Sarah: 18:53 They’re, literally, on that carpet and do a circuit of the globe. They look down and see a little window into what’s going on in different countries around the world. Then, they come back and look down on the situation that they were first in, if you like, at the beginning. It’s that ability to be able to pull out of the situation and take a broader, richer perspective.
David: 19:11 And see the system.
Sarah: 19:11 Exactly, a systems perspective I think is another kind of angle or slant on this.
David: 19:11 Yes. Then, being able hold it in your mind to be able to see all those levels-
Sarah: 19:27 Exactly.
David: 19:27 At the same time, in order to make wiser decisions. Because no matter what decision you make, from a systems perspective, it’s going to affect everything.
Sarah: 19:36 Yes.
David: 19:37 Being able to see it all, you can then start to work out what the consequences of your decisions are going to be.
Sarah: 19:41 Yeah.
David: 19:41 I think this is probably one of the things that is irking people to deal with the political situations, here in American. In other politics, is that it feels like people aren’t making wise decisions, because they’re not thinking through all of the consequences.
Sarah: 19:56 Yeah.
David: 19:57 They focus on one thing rather than thinking, “Hang on. This is going to affect this, this, this, this, this.” We can see a global set of impacts as well as local impact. Maybe that’s what’s causing quite a lot of the anger, that’s what I’m picking up.
Sarah: 20:12 Yes. I think it really is. I think one of the other things that’s happening, if you look at some of the political decision making at the moment, is each of us is a part of this wider system. We can see the potential effect from our bit of the world. We all have a bit of the information. Actually, it would be really important to be including and incorporating this.
Sarah: 20:35 Being able to step back and encapsulate or kind of take account of all of that is actually a really challenging and tricky thing to do. I think wise politics, what would wisdom look like in a political system, is another whole …
David: 20:49 That’s really interesting, isn’t it.
Sarah: 20:50 Yeah. That’s a whole thesis. There’s been a book or a PhD in that.
David: 20:56 Interesting. We’ve only just covered one third of the paper, actually. This is discussion’s about the whole thing about philosophical treatment of wisdom. The paper then goes into looking at the two other aspects, which have to do with theology and psychology. Theology tends to treat practical wisdom across eight themes that the study found. Wisdom as a divine and handed down gift, as opposed to an achievement or development.
David: 21:29 Wisdom from a divine or universal natural source. Historical religious heritage. Wisdom as a guide, particularly for navigating uncertainty. Wisdom as a process for becoming open. Having the ability to be able to build, and see, and understand reality.
David: 21:53 Then, we’ve got wisdom for making sound judgments. Wisdom as a moral and ethical virtue. How to make good decisions for the greater good. Then lastly, the last thing that they found from the theological point of view was wisdom as an overarching concept that encapsulates all other virtues. Is there anything that you would comment on about looking at wisdom through a more theological point of view?
Sarah: 22:24 I think a couple of things that really jump out, I think, from the summary presented there. This idea for the common good, so that there is some kind of moral component to it. So, I think in the philosophical, let’s say, but ethical decision making and those sorts of things. I think actually layering onto that a degree of a moral component I think actually is quite an important part of wisdom. The idea of the common good.
David: 22:50 It is interesting.
Sarah: 22:53 That comes out quite a bit in the psychological literature as well. It transcends self-interests.
David: 22:59 Yes.
Sarah: 23:00 It is …
David: 23:02 For the greater good.
Sarah: 23:02 Exactly, yeah. Perhaps increasingly, this is something that’s really important when we’re thinking about practical wisdom, in terms of leadership. I think in an organizational context as well. Actually, what kind of world are we shaping and creating by the kind of organizations we’re creating, the kind of financial systems we operate in, the way in which we-
David: 23:28 The decisions we make.
Sarah: 23:28 Yes. Looking at topics like artificial intelligence and the use of AI in organizations. Starting to reflect on things like, actually, how can we use some of these incredible technological advances to actually help us create a future world that is for the common good. Those are the sorts of things that would be really good to hear being discussed in businesses, in organizations. I think it starts to raise that aspect of wisdom.
David: 23:58 I think there’s a … This is why we’re starting to see an increase in research in wisdom, I think, is because a lot of businesses are becoming more socially aware. More aware of the impact that they’re having, not just environmentally. Are we just extracting resources? Are we just making a profit? Are we actually doing something?
David: 24:19 There’s an awful lot of research now pointing to the fact that if people are in organizations that are aligned with their values, that they feel like they’re doing some good, globally. In their society or they’re doing good for the country, and not just doing good by building profit for that company. There’s greater employee engagement and greater … What you tend to find is that the remorse, what we call organizational citizenship behavior.
David: 24:49 People going above and beyond, not just committed to doing their job and leaving, but they’re helping around. They’re helping other people within the organization. A lot of the research that we’re seeing is aligning a lot of this stuff to do with individual values, the values of the organization, and how that fits more globally with society, whether the organization’s actually doing some good or it’s actually just there to make money.
Sarah: 25:14 Yeah, yeah. No, I completely agree. I think this bit of people having a real sense of meaning and purpose, that they are contributing in a way. It meets much of our fundamental human needs and drives. Wisdom really is about supporting it and focusing on that side of it.
David: 25:36 Yeah, that’s interesting.
Sarah: 25:38 That more eudemonic as apposed hedonic. That idea of sort of happiness, pleasure. Living a happy life versus a meaningful and purposeful life. That more eudemonic, as it’s described, way of thinking about our experience. Importance of meaning, and purpose, and that. I think that’s a really integral part of wisdom.
David: 26:03 Yeah, practical wisdom. That feeling that we’ve done something that’s positive.
Sarah: 26:08 Yeah, yeah. Yes, exactly. Yeah.
David: 26:08 That’s contributing. Interesting.
Sarah: 26:11 Making a meaningful difference.
David: 26:14 Organizations that do that tend to align more with the values of the people that are inside and outside. It seems to be having quite an impact both on customers and employee.
Sarah: 26:24 Yeah, yes.
David: 26:26 Therefore, a central role for wisdom I suppose. Let’s just have a look at the … There’s a list of nine areas that psychologists tend to look at wisdom or perspectives that psychologists tend to look at wisdom form. A lot of this research comes from positive psychology, but not all of it. From a psychological perspective, the core research issues tend to be these nine areas, which are wisdom as an affect. A set of emotions that are powered by values and beliefs. For example, empathy and compassion.
David: 27:07 The second one is reflective wisdom. That’s things such as the ability to purposefully think, engage in things like introspection, reflection, and to develop wise intuition. The third aspect of wisdom from a psychological point of view tends to be the cognitive aspects of wisdom, such as intelligence, thinking, and problem solving abilities, and things like that, which I guess tends to be where most people see it from. Ability from a psychological research. I’ve got a funny feeling that if we were to analyze it, that would probably be one of the biggest areas.
David: 27:46 Then, wisdom from an ethical and moral perspective. Then, wisdom about finding balance. This aspect of wisdom tends to include things like mindfulness and the ability to be able to build and find internal balance, life balance. Also, balancing interests and activities. As well as the ability to be able to balance and manage uncertainty and ambiguity, which is something that’s close my heart.
David: 28:13 Then, the sixth area that wisdom tends to be looked at by psychologists is wisdom as tolerance and acceptance. Then, wisdom from experience. The development of expertise in order to enhance decision making and thinking. The penultimate area that psychology tends to look at is wisdom in terms of being able to include systemic and systematic social and global issues into one’s thinking deliberations, which we’ve been just been-
Sarah: 28:44 We were talking about it.
David: 28:46 Talking about, yeah. Then, wisdom from the perspective of being wise, and promoting, and developing wisdom, which I think encapsulates most of the areas I’m aware of to do with psychology, anyway.
Sarah: 29:02 Yes. Yeah. I think some of it is a bit about how do you divide it up. What some of the labels and things that are used in order to cluster some of their research and work together. I think one of the things for me that maybe isn’t featured as much on that list is this idea of wisdom as narrative. Actually, the way in which we create narratives about ourselves about society, as well.
Sarah: 29:31 If you start to look at organizational wisdom, for example. What are some of the narratives that exist within the organization? Their role in terms of coherence and providing a framework within wiser thinking judgment. Those sorts of things might arise and occur.
David: 29:47 That’s really interesting, this idea of narrative and wisdom. I actually thought of it like that, because when I do start to think about it, our narrative, the stories we tell, and the stories we think up and believe ourselves all have consequences.
Sarah: 30:03 Yeah, yeah. Completely, and I think some of the bits in there around, you know, this, what’s highlighted here, it’s a lot work in the psychological literature around wisdom and about experience. A lot of people to figure out and you ask people, kind of, actually, could you be wise without experience? It seems hard to kind of imagine how that would happen, but it feels you need to have a degree of experience.
Sarah: 30:27 Yet, equally, we all know that there are plenty of people with decades of experience, who we wouldn’t necessarily call wise. So, one doesn’t automatically lead to the other, by any stretch. So, what is it about some of the other aspects that underpin somebody being able to develop wisdom through experience. I think narrative is one of the really important parts of that. It’s the narrative we create ourselves around our experience.
David: 30:58 Yeah, interesting, isn’t it? What brought to mind … I’m just thinking about children here. You kind of listen to children, and some children, when you listen to them talk, people say, wise head.
Sarah: 31:10 Yeah. Yes.
David: 31:12 Somehow, they have this ability to be able to see things that other children of their age aren’t seeing, in a completely different perspective, and they can see different perspectives.
Sarah: 31:24 Yeah. Yeah. And layering on top of the side of that, is perhaps picking up on, a wise head on very young children. Children hear you and find themselves in circumstances, for example, with a life-threatening illness. Really kind of some of the most kind of tragic and demanding circumstances that a young person might walk into our face. The wisdom that some children seem to be able to access in those kinds of circumstances.
Sarah: 31:55 I think there’s a very interesting bit as well, in the psychological literature, around the degree to which is this an adaptive function that humans have. Is this maybe something that exists within us, the potential to access wisdom, as a resource that enables us to get through stuff?
David: 32:14 Yes. So, when a situation occurs, it starts to come out, in some people. Then, other people, it doesn’t, for reason.
Sarah: 32:22 What is it, then, that means it does for some, and not for others? So, what’s the process that’s going on? And, and this is one of the areas of particularly interests me is, do you have to have tough circumstances?
David: 32:35 Ah, yes.
Sarah: 32:35 So, does wisdom only emerge, if you’ve kind of been thrown into the crucible, and you feel like and you’ve kind of had to, you know is it forged through coming through the tough stuff? Aligned to some of the work around things like post-traumatic growth. Absolutely, it seems fairly compelling that wisdom definitely is something that can emerge from those circumstances. But, do you have to have those sorts of tough circumstances to become wise?
David: 33:01 Yeah. Well, that’s interesting. From my own area, to do with kind of uncertainty and emotion regulation, there are very similar things going on there. Where there’s this sense that people who’ve been through trauma, quite often, not always though, quite often, develop the ability to be able to regulate emotions, but also to cope with and deal with uncertainty better.
David: 33:26 But, there are other people who don’t have a traumatic background, and still enable them to do it. So, there is a … But, it seems to do something for some people. It seems to kind of click a switch, almost. It’s interesting that you’re talking about it, in terms of wisdom. Because, from my perspective, my research is it, quite often, it’ll flick a switch for people being able to cope with and be more productive with uncertainty.
Sarah: 33:55 Yeah, yes. Well, which would have some parallels with this stuff.
David: 34:02 Yeah, I think so.
Sarah: 34:02 I think, that’s kind of one of the core aspects around the wisdom bit. Can they bring a quality of wisdom to the way in which they now encounter, and deal with, and feel about uncertainty?
David: 34:11 Yes.
Sarah: 34:12 So, yeah.
David: 34:12 Rather than just reacting emotionally, a negative emotion, where they’re stuck, it’s like a knee-jerk reaction. Where they’re kicking out at people and things like that. They’re able to kind of calm down and be a bit more phlegmatic, I suppose.
Sarah: 34:27 Which is, so, sort of … I’ve hit a spot of [inaudible 00:34:31]. This bit about, sort of, self-defending. Kind of defending yourself by kind of you know dismissing everything outside of your life, and kind of-
David: 34:41 You’re guarding yourself.
Sarah: 34:41 Yes, exactly. Sort of self protecting. The wise aspect, of that, is that actually that you can let go of that. You may recognize it, particularly if you’re high in personal wisdom, so you may recognize those defense mechanisms kicking in. but almost clock that, that’s what’s going on, so that you can kind of you step outside of yourself, and notice that process, and adjust, and perhaps-
David: 35:04 Mitigate it.
Sarah: 35:05 Yes. Perhaps, if there are … It’s not something we’ve talked about, so far, but there may be, perhaps, certain levels of wisdom. Perhaps, there’s degrees of which, you may get more skillful. You may be able to get more skillful in that. But also, the bit about being able to see the uncertainty. To see uncertainties.
Sarah: 35:24 One of the things around wisdom is that recognition of uncertainty, as opposed to perhaps, a form of defense mechanism that some people may have, which is around deciding everything is certain. Almost ruling out and not-
David: 35:41 Denying it.
Sarah: 35:43 Denial. Completely. Not even being able … A complete inability to even see the uncertainty. Becoming more and more fixed, and more and more dogmatic, and kind of attached to the view that you. The world view that you see.
David: 35:56 Yes, which is interesting, because these are the kinds of things that we’re seeing politically, at the moment.
Sarah: 35:59 Yes. Yeah. It’s playing out in full glory at the time-
David: 36:05 Yes, and it’s not looking good.
Sarah: 36:05 No. One quick look at Twitter.
David: 36:10 Yeah, yeah. I stay away from that, or I’d have it. Fascinating. The study, let me just go back to the study for a little while. What they did do is that they did a fairly good review of all the research, since 2000, on practical leadership and management decision-making.
David: 36:34 Wisdom, to find out what the main themes have been through those things. Now, there’s a fairly long list, but bear with me, because there’s some interesting stuff in here. The kinds of areas that leadership and management wisdom research tends to focus on are, not surprisingly, decision-making. As we’ve just been talking about, dealing with uncertainty, but also complexity and unpredictability.
David: 37:00 Dealing with dilemmas and paradoxes, which we’ve also been talking about. Wisdom based strategy, which is interesting. Organizational wisdom, and this is wisdom and the impact of compliance cultures, particularly on things like wisdom. Wisdom in human resource management. Wisdom as well-being. Ethical decision-making. Wisdom as integrative capacity.
David: 37:32 Now, what this means, is the ability to be able to incorporate a wide range of issues and views, including ethical, moral, and social system factors, into your decision-making and not just focusing on profit, for example. Then, the ability to be able to … And this comes out of the last one, I think. The ability to be able to integrate the common good, truthfulness, and beauty and aesthetics, into work in organizational outcomes, which is interesting because we haven’t touched on that. The idea of kind of beauty and aesthetics, but also truthfulness as well.
David: 38:06 Wisdom in decision-making in judgment making, particularly in the ability to question and challenge common sense, groupthink, and dominant assumptions. That’s, personally, I think that’s really important. Wisdom of the ability to incorporate and integrate evidence-based and research-based scientific information, with human, social, ethical and moral aspects, particularly, in terms of strategy. It’s that ability to be able to bring all of these aspects in together, and not just ignore them, because we don’t have the capacity to be able to cognitively deal with those things.
David: 38:45 Going back to the politicians, which I think quite a lot of them aren’t doing. The development of wisdom as a leader, and as a manager, there’s a range of papers on that. Developing wisdom across an organization. Practical wisdom as a prime methodology for dealing with complexity and uncertainty, which is something I’m particularly interested in.
David: 39:08 Practical wisdom for improving decision-making, and judgment making. Wisdom for personal involvement and awareness of personal limitations, shortcomings, and this is the kind of flawed individual thing, as well as organizational limitations and shortcomings. Wisdom in learning and creating a learning organization. Wisdom as humility. Organizational wisdom, for benefiting from diversity. Balancing capacity across an organization.
David: 39:39 Well-being, using spiritual traditions, to have a positive impact within an organization. Seeking inspiration from a wide variety of sources. Using wisdom for creating a dream, or a vision, for motivating people. Creating inspiring, credible, and ethical goals. Wisdom in the use of power, particularly in terms of things like servant leadership. Wisdom in becoming informed and disciplined. Wisdom using evidence and research-based sources in decision-making and day-to-day actions.
David: 40:20 Then also, lastly, is embracing religious ethos, to promote innovation and entrepreneurial thinking. What do you reckon to that list?
Sarah: 40:27 It’s an interesting list, isn’t it?
David: 40:27 It is. Yeah.
Sarah: 40:27 These are all areas where there has been research done, looking at wisdom in organizations, isn’t it?
David: 40:37 Yeah, since 2000.
Sarah: 40:38 Yeah, it’s really interesting. Then, yeah.
David: 40:43 There’s a diversity in there that’s fascinating.
Sarah: 40:44 That’s why I’m struck, because I think it’s … Yeah, the variety is really interesting, isn’t it?
David: 40:49 Yes, yeah.
Sarah: 40:49 It’s the kind of different things that are being looked at and explored. I think it’s one of the things that I thought was really interesting, when we came across this paper, was. What a remarkable job they’ve done, I think, of pulling a lot that this work together, tying it up with the research from the psychological research, the papers in the area of theology, and also the philosophical approaches. Looking at, actually, how do we start to make some sense of this? Because, it can feel … You know, it’s a list that I can feel quite confusing in a way?
David: 41:21 Yes.
Sarah: 41:22 I mean, it’s really interesting things, but kind of what do you do with all of that? I think this paper has done a really good job of pulling together some key strands of that. But the key, I mean, I … As you were going through the list, I was kind of scribbling down a couple of key words, that, for me, pop up a lot in that list, which I think are really important ones.
Sarah: 41:38 That I’d have taken a great big, giant highlighter pen and kind of go over, which is about integration and balance. That bit about … I thought that was really interesting, the bit about compliance. The challenge, of it. It gets back to what you were saying earlier, about you know if you kind of get a lot of conformity, you try, and get everything the same. But, equally, people need to be able to deal with local issues and the tension between that. And one of the challenges around if you operate in an area that has high compliance requirements, with a lot of rules and things that need to be met.
Sarah: 42:13 That, are we stripping away people’s opportunity to develop and flex their wisdom muscle, if you like. To be able to use good judgment.
David: 42:23 Well, that’s interesting, because that’s one of the areas that I’ve written about, in the past, which is organizations tend to do, in terms of compliance, is they create structures, and systems, policies, procedures and sets of rules. What these things are actually doing is they’re stripping away people’s ability to make decisions. Because, in effect, what they’re saying is the organization has made these decisions for you. This is how we want you to make those decisions.
David: 42:53 People get less and less used to making decisions, in organizations. The decisions that they do make smaller, and smaller, and smaller. That means that when they actually have to make a big decision, in a crisis or something, they’re ill prepared, because they’re not used to making a decision.
David: 43:10 What, then, tends to happen in an organization is, rather than making a decision and trying it, they’ll bounce the decision up to the next level of management. So, nobody’s making a decision. It just keeps getting deferred and it becomes a real issue. So, organizations are kind of pulling against themselves, in some ways.
David: 43:29 You know, I, you’ll get the same, but as consultants, you get people coming to you, and saying, “Look. I want people to start taking responsibility in the organization. I want them making decisions.” You look at their structures, and systems, and it’s all about not making decisions. Real data decisions are few.
Sarah: 43:45 Yes. Yes. I mean this is slightly, slightly off, a little bit of a tangent. But, it was a very amusing thing somebody said to me the other day. Actually, it just landed completely around with this topic. It was a colleague of mine, that I’ve been doing some work with, and she was saying about how one of the things that struck her, it was an organization that she’d gone into, and they were having exactly this conversation.
Sarah: 44:05 They were saying, “Oh, we knew we want people to take more decisions for themselves. We want to give more personal accountability.” Exactly that sort of thing, you just said. Her feedback to them was, “And yet, on the wall of your toilets, you have instructions telling people how they should leave the toilets.” It suddenly left out of me. I mean, like actually, how many organizations have that? it’s really low, isn’t it?
David: 44:26 Yeah.
Sarah: 44:26 To that degree, it was a slightly amazing example, but actually, when she held the mirror up to it, I kind of felt, actually, that’s so true.
David: 44:34 Yeah and that’s the part, for me, organizational wisdom, is the ability to be able to stand back and see that system. See that, actually, we’ve got a system here that’s removing decision making. No wonder people don’t want to make decisions.
David: 44:47 Having a look at the whole system means that maybe we need to loosen off some things here. Maybe we need to stop creating policies. A typical thing, that happens in organizations, is that a mistake will be made, something will happen that goes wrong. As a result of that, there’s a new set of rules come out.
Sarah: 45:03 Yeah. Yeah. Let’s create a policy, or put something in place, to ensure, you know?
David: 45:07 Which is basically saying, this is how to make the decision. You know, we don’t want you making decisions. We’ll make the decision for you. One of the things that I suspect, I hadn’t really thought about this before, is the, I suppose, the connection between wisdom and having an error culture. Where people can make mistakes and learn from them, rather than try to stop mistakes.
David: 45:31 It’s not a wise thing to do, because it’s not natural. We learn through our mistakes, the way that we learn through our successes. But, organizations tend to be risk-averse, and error-adverse, but that has a consequence.
Sarah: 45:44 Yeah. I think, potentially, an organization that struggles to do that, and to kind of let off on some of those things, actually is actively kind of putting in place barriers to creating a wise organization and wiser leaders. Yeah, I think it’s really important.
Sarah: 45:59 Barry Schwartz’s work on this, is really interesting. His stuff around practical wisdom in organizations. This idea of that we’re creating so many rules, and procedures, and policies around things, that we’re kind of stripping out any space or opportunity or ways in which people can develop their own personal wisdom and bring that into the way in which they engage in their roles.
David: 46:23 I think that’s quite important. Certainly, from the kind of research and work that I’ve done around uncertainty. It’s mirroring what happens with uncertainty, so organizations-
Sarah: 46:33 It seems, yeah.
David: 46:34 By the very fact that they’re called organizations, are trying to create more and more certainty within the organization. The trouble is, people get so comfortable with that level of certainty, knowing exactly what they’re doing, knowing exactly how to do it, knowing their network, exactly. That, when change comes, that they find that traumatic.
David: 46:54 Rather than having a situation that’s a bit looser, so that when … They can cope with the uncertainties. Having too little uncertainty, has a very similar kind of effect as having too many rules. It’s stripping people the ability to flex those decision-making muscles, but also flex their uncertainty, coping with uncertainty muscles, as it were. Wisdom, for me, is that ability to be able to step back and see the impact that the organization’s having on things like this.
Sarah: 47:26 This links back to, I think it was in the list, the theology list, where they … No, I can’t which of the lists it was. Where it talked about and … It was the theology one. Talked about wisdom as the meta virtue?
David: 47:35 Yes.
Sarah: 47:35 Yeah. Again, this is something Barry Schwartz talks about. There’s a really interesting paper, by Schwartz and Sharpe on this, but they talk about wisdom as exactly that, the meta virtue. The skill of wisdom is the ability to be able to step back and know when you need to dial up, or dial down, any of those other factors in the specific situation that you are in. they use the really nice example of, certainly, how a real practical, day-to-day bit would be. You know?
David: 48:05 Yeah.
Sarah: 48:06 I’ve got dressed up for an evening and I turn to you, David, and I go, “Does my bum look big in this?” You have to make the judgment call on this.
David: 48:15 I don’t know whether I’m going to be honest or not.
Sarah: 48:16 What’s the wiser answer. You’ve got the virtue of honesty, you’ve got the virtue of compassion. Wisdom is the ability to be able to hold all those bits of information in mind. To navigate the context that you’re in. The relationship, all of that sort of thing. Know, okay, to I dial this one up, dial this one down in order to be able to move forward for the common good.
David: 48:36 Saying something like that’s a really nice dress, but the blue ones even better.
Sarah: 48:40 Is perfect. I should definitely ask for your opinion.
David: 48:47 Okay. Just back to the paper. Finally. What the study found was eight primary features of practical leadership management wisdom, which are really interesting. The study found that practical leadership management wisdom, there’s eight key features. The first one is action oriented. It’s about transforming information, knowledge, beliefs, values, and decisions into action to achieve outcomes.
David: 49:15 The second one is what they call integrative orientation. This is the ability to be able to build and integrate all layers of issues, acting on an organization, into the decision making, being able to balance competing tensions, and create a reflective learning culture, which is what we’ve just actually been talking about. A normative feature. This is practical wisdom using different types of knowledge in order to create a good life for oneself and others in a way that’s socially responsible. Number four is social elite decisions, which is ensuring that decisions and actions are socially responsible.
David: 49:59 Number five is pluralistic decision making and action taking. This is ensuring that the diversity of issues and perspectives are being considered and taken account of. Number six is personality related features. This includes developing authenticity, discipline, self-awareness, and becoming considered. Number seven. These are cultural heritage features, which means being sensitive and open to learning about and from history, cultural heritage, as well as taking part in helping to mold and adapt it in a new well context.
David: 50:39 Then lastly, the number eight is limitation related features. What this refers to is the fact that practical wisdom includes an awareness of the limitations we have as individuals and developing humility regardless of one’s own achievements, abilities, or knowledge. That’s a lot.
Sarah: 51:02 Lots of stuff actually encapsulates some of what we’ve been talking about and exploring. There’s one particularly that jumps out at me, which I think is a really important one. One that really caught my interest and fascination. Maybe it’s slightly aligned to what I was saying earlier about the narrative bit. This bit about history and that looking to the past, being able to think about the present, and being able to project into the future.
Sarah: 51:27 This idea of being able to move along, not only multiple perspectives. That kind of pluralistic viewpoints, if you like, being able to step into multiple different diverse views about something. Being able to take an objective observers view. Being able to rise up and take that bystander, detached observer perspective. Also, being able to almost float through time, if you like, to look back into the past, and to see where we are now, and to move into the future. Time traveler components, if you like, of wisdom I think is really interesting.
David: 52:02 Yeah. That’s interesting, because quite often we’re thinking about our situation. About all the factors that are present, right now. Actually, our situation in history is as a result of what’s happened, and our thinking is both constrained and enabled by that, but also our place in history. Kind of almost what are we going to be remembered for, but also what legacy we’re leaving, and where are we going.
Sarah: 52:29 Yes.
David: 52:30 Having that perspective adds wisdom.
Sarah: 52:34 Yes.
David: 52:35 This is a, sorry to go back to politics again, I wonder whether a lot of politicians really think through how they’re going to be viewed by history.
Sarah: 52:45 Yeah, yeah.
David: 52:47 Not very kindly, I suspect.
Sarah: 52:51 I think there was something about different individuals preference about this, this certainly seems to be some indication I think in the literature around. What’s the timeline different people are more naturally drawn towards, when you ask people to step into the future on the back. Actually, how many of us truly can step into a future that’s 50 years from now or 100 years from now versus next year, five years, 10 years?
David: 53:17 Next week.
Sarah: 53:18 Yes, yeah. That ability to really be able to project into a future and look back. I think it’s like a muscle again that we could stretch a little more.
David: 53:30 It’s interesting, isn’t it, because that suggestion that we’re creating history-
Sarah: 53:37 Yes, yeah.
David: 53:37 Right now, and what legacy do you want to leave, right now, that other people will look back on and think, “That was good. I’m glad they did that.”
Sarah: 53:50 When you look at collective wisdom. I know we talked about practical wisdom there in a sense. That idea of wisdom that we applied, it shapes the way in which we act and behave on a daily basis. Actually, when you also start to look at collective wisdom and the degree to which there are things we are creating that are setting up patterns, ways of thinking, and behaving, going into the future based on what we … The social product, if you like, the social and cultural product that we put forward now. This starts to influence that.
David: 54:30 Yeah, yeah. Going back to the whole organizational thing. The kinds of thinking and the kinds of discussions that we have, narrative stories that we tell now, are actually setting up the future.
Sarah: 54:45 Exactly, yeah.
David: 54:46 For where they’re going. We’re the seed into that. If we want a wise organization?, wise leadership, wise management, the things that we do right now are going to impact that out in the future. It goes back to this consideration of consequences.
Sarah: 55:04 Yes, a real awareness of the ripple effects that I think it’s really important for this.
David: 55:12 The question is what are the things that we are doing now that is going to have a positive impact on our future so that when we get there, that we’ll be in a good position, we’ll be in a wiser position? More people within the organization will be thinking in these practical wise ways, I suppose.
Sarah: 55:36 Yes. I think the moment you just ask people. I was experimenting with this a little bit. When I was starting to do some of my research with them, you just get around to having conversations with people about wisdom and what do you think of wisdom. If I ask you to think about what is the wise decision, what the sparks are for your mind. One of the things that came back fairly consistently just from these kind of incidental conversations was this idea of time.
Sarah: 56:01 That when you ask somebody to think about … One of the things I was asking people to do is think about a particular challenging decision that you’re facing at the moment. Or a situation you’re struggling with. If I ask you to think about that from the perspective of bringing a wiser frame to it, how does that … Just literally asking people to … Not even discussing what wisdom is, just try and think more wisely about it.
Sarah: 56:22 Fairly consistently, the response that came back was people were projecting further into the future. They were imagining what was the longer term consequences of any decision that they made in that particular moment right now. It’s interesting. I think there’s something about that real sense of what’s the legacy that you might believe you’re setting up.
David: 56:43 I’ve not noticed that before, because that’s a question that sometimes I use on myself.
Sarah: 56:48 [crosstalk 00:56:48].
David: 56:51 If I’m in a pickle and I don’t know what to do, for example. Sometimes, I don’t always do it, but sometimes I say, “Okay, what would be the wise response now?”
Sarah: 57:01 Yeah, yeah.
David: 57:01 What I hadn’t clocked was that I would probably now, thinking longer term as a result of that.
Sarah: 57:11 Okay.
David: 57:12 I’m just thinking about this, because it’s a question I quite often ask my coachees when they’re in a pickle. I say, “Okay, what would be the wise thing to do now? What would a wise person say about it?”
Sarah: 57:20 Yeah.
David: 57:23 I really hadn’t thought about it, but I’m going to start noticing that now. Yeah, I think you’re right. I think you’ve got to almost, because you’ve got to think of the consequences long term.
Sarah: 57:32 Yeah.
David: 57:33 Not just the short term consequences.
Sarah: 57:35 Yeah.
David: 57:36 That therefore changes your perspective on the problem. That’s really good. We’re over the hour here.
Sarah: 57:43 No.
David: 57:45 I know, I know. Filming.
Sarah: 57:48 Got us talking of our topic?
David: 57:51 No, just approaching the hour now. I think I’m going to cut it here. This has been, for me, a very valuable conversation.
Sarah: 58:00 Really interesting, I’ve really enjoyed it.
David: 58:00 It’s an interesting paper. Let me just get the reference out. Then, you can go and get it. The paper was … Researchers have these names. Why aren’t they all called like your name, Smith?
David: 58:18 My apologies to the researchers if I get this wrong. It’s Bachmann, Habisch, Dierksmeier. I think I got that right. The paper’s 2018, Practical Wisdom, Management’s No Longer Forgotten Virtue. It was published in the Journal of Business Ethics a little bit earlier on this year. Thank you, Sarah. It’s been brilliant. I’ve really enjoyed that.
Sarah: 58:43 Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed it, too. It’s been very good fun.
David: 58:47 Great. We’ll be reviewing another briefing in our next podcast. From Sarah.
Sarah: 58:54 Goodbye.
David: 58:55 From me, it’s goodbye and we’ll see you soon. If you’ve got any comments on these podcasts, please let us know. If there are any research topics that you’d like us to have a look at, do a research briefing, and then do a podcast on, let us know as well. We are very, just from our members, but also from the public, driven. We’re interested in what you’re interested in, as long as it’s to do with people and organizations. That’s like the bag for the Oxford Review, really. Thank you and goodbye.
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