Wisdom at work

According to Confucius, wisdom, courage and compassion are the three universally recognised moral qualities of men. They’re also regarded as key elements of Buddhahood. But where do they fit into management?

While it might seem obvious that managers need all three, we tend to be reluctant to use this kind of language at work as it sounds more at home in a spiritual rather than organisational context. I believe however that these concepts are highly relevant for managers and should be considered as practical business tools. Starting with wisdom, I’m going to explore each of the three over the net few posts.

Wisdom is often confused with knowledge. While knowledge may be an important part of it, wisdom also involves action. Perhaps one of the best known stories about wisdom is where King Solomon was asked to judge which of two women was the real mother of a baby. Having heard the arguments, he called for a sword and said he would cut the baby in two so that each woman could have half. Whereas one woman readily accepted the judgement, the other gave up her claim and said her rival should have the baby. The king gave the child to the one willing to surrender it, on the grounds that the true mother would never agree to having her baby harmed.

Solomon’s actions clearly demonstrate the five features that an article on wisdom and management suggests wise leaders possess:

  • The capability of coping with complex and uncertain events
  • The capacity to understand and question a situation
  • The capability of creative thinking, using instinct in their judgements
  • The possession of a long term vision
  • The ability to influence people through their words and actions

Another piece of research on cultivating wisdom at work demonstrated that we’re often much wiser when it comes to making decisions about other people’s problems than our own. Reassuringly, it also suggested that wisdom may be more common than we think. Wisdom however is not necessarily restricted to the great and the good – the office intern for example may make wiser decisions than a senior manager depending on the circumstances.

One of the big take-aways for me from all of this is that wisdom is not seated in one place.  A wise manager will seek the views of a wide range of people in order to understand the situation fully before they act, whereas an unwise one will make a quick decision based solely on their own inevitably limited perspective. Or to paraphrase Shakespeare, foolish managers think they’re wise, but wise managers know they’re a fool.

Other articles in this series