Where’s the wisdom gone?


June 1st, 2015

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action manOn seeing Mona Siddiqui speak recently, I was moved by her distinction between cleverness and wisdom. Society rewards quick and clever much more than wisdom, but where does all this rushing around actually get us?

Today most of us find it hard to linger even briefly in the ambiguity and uncertainty of organisational life and leadership. Leaders tell me of the pressure to act before they have even a superficial grasp of a situation. They survive, they imagine, because the impacts of the decision made could not be attributed amongst the chaos and everyone was too busy to notice anyway. Sometimes they get it much more right and in those moments they sense that there is a better way.

Leaders can’t know everything, and distilling to simplicity is crucial of course. I also appreciate from experience that leaders must live in the tension between taking time to understand enough versus seizing the moment. It was ever thus. Perhaps today’s workplaces require us to be almost constantly on the move, but this can blur into allowing our primitive drives to hijack our capacity for wisdom, digging us into an ever deeper hole. We even delude ourselves that these compulsions to dive in are ‘intuitions’.

What I see often are people and organisations repeating mistakes too fast to notice them let alone learn. Leaders admit to me that they realise they have been so consumed by their own and their followers’ cleverness, that they have gone round in circles with the same problem for years. They celebrate the apparent success of solving it, only to see a different manifestation of the same underlying issue re-emerge. Examples abound: an engineering firm’s profits evaporate soon after salami-slice cost saving of everything from talent development to research to leadership development; a publishing company struggling to embed digital working practices, focusing on inch-perfect technical project management but ignoring the resentment and distrust of thousands of staff excluded from decisions because of the rush to deliver. To me these are examples of cleverness beating wisdom in the battle of delivery, but then losing the war of sustainable profit.

The good news is that if we can come to our senses and see these destructive patterns in play, we can discipline our compulsion for action and cleverness and get in touch consistently with the insight that makes us both uniquely human, and capable of leading well. It takes some effort, but it might be a relief to you that we don’t need to add to our ever expanding task lists here, because it is being, not doing, from which wisdom emerges.

And as long as we are breathing, we are already doing being! The trick is to get consciously aware of our being, which is less about action of any outwardly visible form and more about an inward act of focusing our attention. If this sounds like mindfulness practise that is indeed one way, but I focus my time more and more on a related but different approach, known as somatic work, or working with our body. I use it myself as well as with others in their development. Whenever I get that flighty feeling in my chest or a knotting up in my stomach, I take it as a message that wisdom wants a moment and is saying to me “wait, I can help”.

I feel uncomfortable in those moments and sometimes struggle to manage the expectations of others under the pressure alluded to earlier. But I’m coming to trust that physical acts like breathing more deeply, sitting more upright and walking down the corridor a few times, will allow a different quality of response. For example, rather than speeding up down an agreed logical path with a client, I ask for a few hours to pause, during which time I realise that something qualitatively rather than quantitatively different is needed – some honest conversation and then probably a redesign. A more mundane example is task prioritisation. When workload is pressing, do you sometimes slip into simple small tasks first to help build a sense of achievement? I know I can. The danger of course is that the bigger more important work doesn’t get the time. If I use a body technique called centring for a minute or two I will be able to still the urge to dive in for long enough that I can step back and make a different choice about what I need to engage with.

These are simple yet crucial actions, I have found. The neo-cortex, entangled as it is with more instinctive centres elsewhere in the brain, cannot be trusted to judge if we are doing our best for ourselves and for those around us. Ancient practices from yoga to martial arts have known for centuries that bringing greater awareness of and control to our body is an invaluable step toward accessing wisdom. It seems to me that today more than ever leaders have to rediscover the capacity to linger if only momentarily – mentally, emotionally but particularly physically – so that they can infuse their thought and action with greater wisdom.