Developing Your Wisdom

Psychologist and author Richard R. Kilburg presents questions for improving leadership wisdom that can be reviewed in coaching sessions (Executive Wisdom: Coaching and the Emergence of Virtuous Leaders, APA, 2006).

  1. Take a moment to relax, then ask yourself the following questions:
    1. What is the stupidest thing you have ever done as a person or as a professional?
    2. If you are a leader in an organization, what is the stupidest decision or action you have ever taken?
    3. What made the decision or action stupid? When and how did you know it was stupid? What criteria did you use to judge its merits?
  2. Now, ask yourself,
    1. What is the wisest thing you have ever done as a person or as a professional?
    2. If you are a leader in an organization, what is the wisest decision or action you have ever taken?
    3. What made the decision or action wise? When and how did you know it was wise? What criteria did you use to judge its merits?
  3. Can you develop any internal sense of how you created, accessed, and used a sense of rightness in the situations in which you believe you acted wisely as opposed to stupidly? If so, jot down and reflect on what you think and feel went into the emergence of that sense of rightness.
  4. Take a few minutes to talk to someone out loud about what you have explored or, if you are reluctant to share it with another person, dictate some notes into a tape recorder and then listen to yourself afterward. The experience of giving voice to inner work can often provide additional insight and learning.


Discussing these issues with your coach will help you develop a powerful link to leading with wisdom. In fact, I suggest that doing these steps on your own won’t be as effective as they could be when you use coaching sessions to explore your thoughts with a trusted advisor.

8 Pillars of Wisdom

In Stephen S. Hall’s book, Wisdom: from Philosophy to Neuroscience (Vintage 2011), the author breaks the concept of wisdom into its most salient cognitive and emotional components which he calls the “neural pillars of wisdom,” in order to understand the science behind each. The book is recommended for better understanding the “science of wisdom” and its philosophical and psychological roots.

  1. Emotional regulation
  2. Knowing what’s important: values and judgment
  3. Moral reasoning
  4. Compassion
  5. Humility
  6. Patience
  7. Altruism
  8. Dealing with uncertainty and complexity

Business Intelligence

According to Tom Davenport, professor of information technology at Babson College in Massachusetts, “Business intelligence is the systematic use of information about your business to understand, report on and predict different aspects of performance.”

Davenport argues that sage leadership is the most important factor in cultivating this organizational thought process, citing as examples Jeff Bezos of, Inc., Gary Loveman of Harrah’s Entertainments, Inc., and Reed Hastings of Netflix, Inc.

Warren Buffet, the investor, is known for his financial wisdom built upon a foundation of expert accounting knowledge. However, his true brilliance stems from a deep understanding of people and human nature.

What about Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, would you consider him to be a wise business leader? Think about it: who are the wisest business leaders of all time? Who would you nominate?

Here’s an interesting article worth reading, published in CNN Money in 2003, written by Jim Collins, The 10 Greatest CEOs of All Time: What these extraordinary leaders can teach today’s troubled executives.

Social Intelligence

A less appreciated aspect of corporate skill is social wisdom. Often termed “human relations,” understanding and incorporating the diversity of “people factors” into business decisions is usually undervalued. So much of our physical and psychic energy is depleted by conflicts, stress, and competitive interpersonal tensions in business.

We know this, yet we continue to measure business success by the usual marketplace yardsticks of sales, profits, dividends and other bottom line results. We forget the other issues, such as job satisfaction, quality of workplace, sense of personal fulfillment, and innovative and creative opportunities.

What if we exercised executive wisdom by focusing on maximizing the potentials of both the organization and its employees? How would that impact leadership decisions? How many companies have floundered by focusing on the numbers while ignoring their people?

Business Compassion

Is compassion compatible with good business? Recent studies suggest that those businesses that maintain a right-minded and socially aware focus develop strong and healthy bottom lines. One study compared financial results of companies with higher commitments to charitable giving and found they were more profitable.

Wisdom in Action

Prudent decision-making lies at the heart of wisdom but it’s not the whole story. In order to make a smart decision, a wise leader must draw upon intellectual, emotional, and social comprehension.

Over many coaching sessions with my clients, we discuss what goes into wise thinking.  Here’s a partial list of some of the things people describe as important. To make wise decisions, one must:

  • Gather information
  • Discern reality from artifice
  • Evaluate and edit the accumulating knowledge
  • Listen with both heart and mind
  • Consider what is morally right
  • Weigh what is socially just
  • Consider others as much as self
  • Think about the here and now
  • Consider future impact

In times of crisis, however, wisdom sometimes demands the paradoxical decision to resist action or judgment.

Some of the wisest and most devout men have lived avoiding all noticeable actions.” ~ Michel de Montaigne, French philosopher

There are no workbooks that, if you buy and read them, will turn you into an outstanding leader. Reading about wisdom will certainly open your mind to many possibilities, but to read about it without taking action is a fruitless endeavor

When called upon in any challenging situation, no matter how trivial, if you slow down long enough to ask yourself the question, “What would be the wisest thing to do?” you will already be moving closer to making a more appropriate and apt decision.

The question allows you to slow down the sense of urgency long enough to consider other people, other issues, and future implications. Instead of reaching for immediate solutions to take away the burning problem, you have an opportunity to consider future needs down the road.

The Contradictions of Wisdom

What are the elements that comprise wisdom? Here are recurrent themes and common qualities:

  • Humility
  • Patience
  • Clear-eyed, dispassionate view of human nature
  • Emotional resilience
  • Ability to cope with adversity
  • A philosophical acknowledgment of ambiguity
  • Recognizing the limitations of knowledge

And here’s where it gets challenging. Action is important, as well as inaction, at times. Compassion is central to wisdom, but so is emotional detachment. Knowledge is crucial, but often wisdom deals with uncertainty.

These inherent contradictions are embedded in any definition of wisdom. In fact, they are the essence of what makes wisdom so critical to leaders.

What else would you include as an important element of wisdom?

Finding Wisdom at Work

Fortunately, every time we think about wisdom and make an effort to pause and contemplate a potential role for true leadership in whatever we are about to say or do, we move a step closer to achieving it. But unfortunately, many leaders don’t take time to consider the larger issues when short term profits are at stake.

Whenever I’m working with a coaching client, we discuss some of the ways they think wisdom comes into play for them. While individual answers vary, most people find decision-making to be most challenging.

Wisdom in the workplace typically implies two distinct areas of wise behavior:

  1. The wisdom of decision-making.
    1. Knowing what information to use in decision-making.
    2. Creating a culture of knowledge in order to acquire that information in a timely fashion.
    3. Assessing it in both short- and long-term frameworks.
  2. Reaping the financial rewards that come with shrewd financial choices.

In many cases, business wisdom involves plain hard work, coupled with intelligence in several domains: knowledge, social intelligence, emotional regulation, compassion and concern for the common good.

Wisdom is more an ideal aspiration than a state of mind or a pattern of behavior that we customarily employ. The mere act of thinking about wisdom nudges us closer to it.

When you encounter a problem or dilemma, if you ask yourself, “What would be the wisest thing to do here?” you increase your chances of making a judicious choice.

Yet it’s rarely that simple. How do we make complex, complicated decisions and choices in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity? What makes some of these decisions so clearly sound that we intuitively recognize them as a moment of human wisdom?

Ultimately, without an understanding of the elements that comprise wisdom, it eludes us. In what ways do you have an opportunity to use wisdom in your work? I’d love to hear from you.

In Search of Executive Wisdom

 What Is Business Wisdom?

“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go but ought to be.”  ~ Rosalynn Carter, former First Lady

Every person in an executive role aspires to exercise wisdom in their decisions. Unfortunately, far too often senior leaders are more concerned with meeting the numbers and fail to come close to being astute.

The question is, can wisdom be practiced as a leadership competency in today’s incredibly complex environment of corporate governance? And… what are the consequences of ignoring it?

While volumes have been written about wisdom over the ages, from philosophers and theologians to psychologists, it remains hard to define. Everyone believes they know it when they see it, especially in retrospect, without being able to pinpoint how or why.

It seems that everyone strives for brilliant decision- making in business, career, and work situations, and even more so when it comes to family, community, and moral issues.  But what is it? It isn’t just intelligence, it’s more than that.

A lot of my coaching clients  are smart people, in fact most are very smart. Often, however, they lack wisdom and need to develop their capacity to express it.

Defining Wisdom

The Oxford English Dictionary (1998) states that wisdom is “the capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct; soundness of judgment in the choice between means and ends; sometimes less strictly, sound sense in practical affairs; opposite to folly.” Thus there is a combination of judgment, decisions, and actions.

Robert J. Sternberg, the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University and a leading researcher of wisdom, sees it as the application of tacit knowledge in pursuing the goal of a common good. It requires a balance of intra-, inter-, and extra-personal interests and a balance of responses to environmental and global contexts over short and longer periods of time.

When leading others in organizations, matters of wisdom become complicated. In the case of executives, they must consider the needs of customers, suppliers, employees, the organization, financial profits, shareholders and the environment, often globally.

According to Sternberg (2005), “Effective leadership is, in large part, a function of creativity in generating ideas, analytical intelligence in evaluating the quality of these ideas, practical intelligence in implementing the ideas, and convincing others to value and follow the ideas, and wisdom to ensure that the decisions and their implementation are for the common good of all stakeholders.”

Sternberg has several books out on wisdom, and one that is particularly relevant to business executives is Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid (Yale, 2002).

Think about it… how would you define wisdom in the workplace? I’d love to hear your comments.

How to Use Humor at Work (Part 4)

How to Add Humor at Work

Timing can be everything when it comes to humor. Follow these guidelines to increase your chances of getting a few chuckles after your next one-liner:

  1. Watch for a playful mood before you tell a joke.
  2. Keep your stories short and simple.
  3. Laugh at your own jokes when a room goes silent. It’s contagious.
  4. Link laughter to something people already know: place, work or climate.
  5. Avoid laughing at other cultures; instead, laugh at your own.
  6. Laugh at your own ego.
  7. Listen to people who make you laugh, and mimic a few tactics they use.

How to Use Humor at Work (Part 3)

The Dark Side of Humor

Joking and sarcasm will earn you a few chuckles, but there’s often an element of negativity in funny remarks.

You must avoid crossing the fine line that transforms comic relief into hurtful jabs. As with anything in life, execution can elevate or sabotage your intentions. A gentle poke at someone’s weak spot may be just that, but perception is in the eye of the person receiving the poke.

Often, humor falls flat. Even worse than not being funny is inadvertent destructiveness. The problem occurs when we fail to recognize how what we say in jest can turn negative. We assume the recipient knows we’re “just kidding,” but research shows:

  • Nasty interactions have a 500% greater impact on one’s mood than positive interactions.
  • It takes numerous encounters with positive people to offset the loss of energy and happiness a jerk can cause in a single hurtful episode.

Laughter can also work against you if you diminish others or offend people by laughing at what they consider too crude or sacred. People rarely enjoy being the butt of jokes. This is why it’s best to laugh at yourself or an immediate situation you face at work, as opposed to others, their backgrounds and idiosyncrasies.

But be careful to avoid laughing at your own career competence, as those around you want to see courage and confidence. Otherwise, you risk undermining your position, and people will have a hard time taking you seriously.

How to Use Humor at Work (Part 2)

Humor and Creativity

Humor encourages creativity, allowing you to view challenges from new angles. You’ll enjoy playing with a variety of ideas and making innovative associations.

You’ll be more willing to step back and observe, often with a beginner’s mindset. As you begin to search for the exaggerations that make something funny, you use the same parts of your brain that help you create new solutions to old problems.

Humor and Managing Change

For the 99.4% of us who are continually wrestling with major workplace changes, humor can make your professional life much less frightening. It encourages out-of-the-box thinking and flexible attitudes – two important traits in people who manage change successfully.

Motivation and Morale

Workplace humor keeps the mood light and maintains a climate of positive energy. When morale is high, coworkers get along better, people enthusiastically do their work, and employees are more committed to goals.

Successful organizations celebrate milestones on their journey to achieve goals. That’s why many use fun and even wacky ways to reward employees for a job well done.

Humor Strengthens Teams

Teams that laugh together work well together. Humor breaks down stereotypes and promotes a sense of unity. It can build company traditions and a sense of shared history, which reminds employees they’re playing for the same team.

In meetings, humor encourages participation, minimizes conflicts, helps people retain information, opens up dialogue and sparks creativity. It livens up dry business correspondence, softens authoritative messages and improves the delivery of presentations.

Including your customers in the fun helps you connect with them on a human level, helps ensure loyalty and makes service memorable.

More managers are embracing their sense of humor as a way to build rapport with staff, communicate more effectively, show their human side more openly, develop trust and foster a supportive workplace climate. And as we succeed at what we enjoy doing, laughter improves the bottom line.

How to Use Humor at Work (Part 1)

In the national bestseller Flow, University of Chicago psychologist MihalyCsikszentmihalyi suggests two key factors determine our overall happiness:

  • Our relations with other people
  • How we experience our work

You can improve both areas by bringing humor to work each day.

Harvard Business Review (September 2003) reports that executives with a sense of humor climb the corporate ladder more quickly and earn more money than their counterparts.

Stu Robertshaw, a University of Wisconsin professor emeritus of education and psychology, cites a study in which a firm experienced a 21 percent decrease in staff turnover and a 38 percent decrease in Friday absenteeism after incorporating humor into the workplace.

And in another study, management professor David Abramis of California State University, Long Beach, determined that employees who have fun on the job are more productive and creative; are better decision makers and team players; and have fewer absentee, sick and late days.

A sense of humor offers many job benefits:

  • Reduces stress
  • Stimulates creativity
  • Boosts motivation and morale
  • Strengthens teams
  • Makes meetings more effective
  • Facilitates open communication
  • Improves customer services
  • Improves the bottom line

A good laugh reduces blood pressure, increases heart rate, massages internal organs and reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood. It boosts blood flow to your brain, which means you learn more, forget less and feed your curiosity.

Humor also keeps your life in balance, allowing you to more effectively juggle personal goals, family commitments and work demands. You’ll maintain your sanity and perspective as you reduce tension in stressful situations and rise above crises.

7 Career Mistakes That Turn Your Mojo into Nojo (Part 5)

Mojo Recuperation

What can you do when you recognize these behaviors in yourself?

It’s easy to say, “OK, guess I’ll stop doing that.” It’s harder to maintain progress whenever you seek lasting behavior change.

Someone once asked Goldsmith, “Does anyone ever really change?” After surveying 86,000 former clients and, later on, more than 250,000 respondents from his leadership development seminars, his conclusion is unequivocal:

“Very few people achieve positive, lasting change without ongoing follow-up. Unless they know at the end of the day (or week or month) that someone is going to measure if they’re doing what they promised to do, most people fall prey to inertia.”

The key words in Goldsmith’s statement are “measure” and “follow-up.” Because very few people can succeed alone with self-help efforts, many seek assistance from a mentor or executive coach.

Always remember that your competition continually responds to a changing business environment by working longer and harder. This means mojo is not an option; it’s a career differentiator. You need it to separate yourself from the throng — and your personal spirit will ultimately thank you.