Leadership, wisdom, mind-sets and all that – Part 1


In part one of a three part series, Gerard Chick, chief knowledge officer of Optimum Procurement delves into the question of effective learning and leadership. He writes…

Today, there seems to be a burgeoning recognition of the importance of the concepts of learning and leading in business, where some argue that effective learning is the only sustainable competitive advantage in modern business.

It’s also true that in the 50 plus years since Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker”, never have employees who think for a living been more important or more in demand in organisations around the globe – supported by the perennial debate regarding talent acquisition and retention. Perhaps it seems obvious but an organisation full of thinkers is quite different to an organisation full of doers.

With the introduction of the assembly line, theories of management focused on predefining the ideal outcome and creating performance measures that pushed employees to reach that goal. Efficient managers were those who set the course and very carefully defined, monitored and drove performance.

Yet the new challenge in management is quite different. Businesses are less like finely tuned machines – operations with predictable processes and outcomes that can be pre-directed – but increasingly resemble complex organisms, living in vibrant and evolving ecosystems. Good management is no longer simply making good decisions yourself, but creating the conditions for others to make good decisions on their own.

It will come as a no surprise that this focus has been extended into a whole new business discipline called ‘Knowledge Management’, as well as being an integral part of the Business Leadership agenda. These developments in learning and knowledge and their management coincided with the widespread use of personal computers and the internet explosion which created massive new challenges from what has become known as the ‘information explosion’; and with it new challenges over establishing priorities via the use of ‘Big Data’.

We also need to recognise that the more ‘change’ that is going on in society and as a consequence in business, the more important it is that we make sure that our learning and leadership is as effective as possible. That is the only way we have any chance of being able to equate change with progress. So, if we want business and those who work in and with it to have a better future the first and most important thing to do is, improve the quality and effectiveness of our learning and leading!

Having said that, are we really focused on what is important, rather than on just what is easy to measure, i.e. information and knowledge rather than wisdom; and consequently can we lead and/or develop those who will lead in the future? If learning is critical, we then have to ask ourselves what is ‘wisdom’; how do we acquire it and how can we pass it on (more) effectively to those who will follow us?

So what do we mean by ‘wisdom’? Wikipedia defines wisdom as “the ability and desire to make choices that can gain approval in a long-term examination by many people”. In this sense, to label a choice ‘wise’ implies that the action or inaction was strategically correct when judged by widely-held values.

To acknowledge the existence of wisdom assumes both order and absolute. Wisdom is recognising the difference between good and bad and choosing what is good. To acknowledge wisdom is also to acknowledge consequences for unwise or foolish choices. As with all decisions, a wise decision must be made with incomplete information. But in acting wisely, a leader must plan a reasonable future situation, desire the outcome to be broadly beneficial, and then act.

A standard philosophical definition describes wisdom as ‘making the best use of available knowledge’; that wisdom connotes an ‘enlightened perspective’. This perspective is often defined in a rather utilitarian, pragmatic way, as effective support for the long-term common good, that the insights and acts that many people agree are ‘wise’ tend to:

  • arise from a viewpoint compatible with many ethical systems;
  • serve life, the public good or other impersonal values as opposed to some sort of narrow self-interest;
  • be grounded in but not limited by past experience or history and yet anticipate future likely consequences;
  • be informed by multiple forms of intelligence – reason, intuition, heart and spirit.

So one might conclude that wisdom can be considered to be a useful ‘truth’ with a long shelf life; that it is something that will stand the test of time.

It is particularly related to insights that are useful in understanding the relationships that work well within us, and in relationships with each other and with the world around us as a whole. Hence the insights are globally recognisable.  Wisdom is a far more encompassing term than knowledge in that being wise goes beyond having a well-developed grasp of factual knowledge by adding values to facts.

Wisdom statements are those that appear to be useful in helping us all make the world we live and work in a ‘better’ place for the future. But they are only useful, if they also check out with our own experience. Of course, that relatively simple objective is not quite as easy as it sounds for two reasons.

  1. The word ‘better’ explicitly, and implicitly, means that we are involved in considering the whole complicated subject of values that are embedded in the question: “What do we mean by ‘better’? It should surprise no one that a critical part of the content of any wisdom statement is the extent to which it incorporates judgements about values. In fact, in many ways, that is a critical part of the definition of what we mean by wisdom. But that does not mean that all statements, that reflect values can be defined as wisdom; the extra dimensions required, are that they are widely accepted, and that they have ‘stood the test of time’.
  2. It is important too to recognise that in trying to ‘make the world a better place for us all’ we can run into areas of conflict. For example, making things ‘better’ for some people can be at the expense of making it worse for others; ‘offshoring’ touted by many as a good thing can bring with it all sorts of unforeseen ‘wicked problems’ such as structural unemployment or supply chain disruption. Much of the conflict that arises in this area is because in different cultures meaning changes or because across cultures and geographical boundaries we need to use different time horizons when we talk about the future. Some people are obsessed with tomorrow, whilst others are primarily concerned with what they perceive to be the needs of the next decade, or even the next century. These issues are central to all debates about the role and nature of leadership. When differences do occur, it is essentially the quality of our dialogue that, in the end, will determine the quality of the decision and outcome.

Decisions made by people who lead organisations inevitably involve priorities and these inevitably have a values dimension. It is important to recognise too that whilst all wisdom is based on well-founded information, it is certainly not the case that all well founded information is wisdom.

Whilst it is easy to recycle the wisdom of others, the hard thing is to put it into practice; those people who put wisdom into practice are those who we would consider to be wise. In essence, being wise is the ability to put information/knowledge to good use or put another way, using it in the wider interest for the long term.

In Part 2 we will look at the links between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. This is important as we need to understand the linkages between these four things. The conventional view to this link is a chain-like relationship with data at the beginning, moving through information and knowledge and finishing with wisdom. In essence, there is, somehow, greater ‘added value’ as we move along the chain. This progression has a fundamental flaw, which arises from the relationship between these four items not being linear in nature. There is no (linear) step-by-step movement along the chain from data to wisdom.

 * Read Part 2 next week


Gerard Chick is chief knowledge officer, Optimum Procurement. His new book, The Procurement Value Proposition, is co-authored by Prof Robert Handfield. 

The Procurement Value Proposition tackles critical challenges head-on and sets a bold new vision. The book examines how organizations can use procurement to drive competitive advantage. It features insights from business leaders and case studies of companies that are moving through procurement transformation.


About Author

Procurement and Supply Australasia (PASA) is the leading provider of information and education to procurement and supply professionals throughout Australia and New Zealand. PASA supports the largest community of engaged procurement stakeholders in the region, through its renowned series of events, publications, awards, plus various community and network building activities. PASA is a trading name of BTTB Marketing, for many years recognised as the leading producer of conferences and events for the procurement profession in Australia and New Zealand. Whether producing under the BTTB, CIPSA Conferences or now PASA brands over the last ten years, our events have consistently led the market in terms of both educational and networking opportunities.

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