What is Wisdom?

Today when I went to respond to a comment on my Forbes blog, I was struck by the quote of the day:

Cleverness is not wisdom.

And it made me think: there a lot of qualities that are somehow adjacent to wisdom, yet having them doesn’t necessarily make you wise. For example, intelligence, knowledge, analytical ability, thoughtfulness and – yes – cleverness.  All are generally useful and positive, all have to do with mental capability, Since wisdom is primarily a mental capability, too, I think it’s easy to confuse having these things with being wise.  Also, people want to believe they’re wise, so if we’re smart or clever or thoughtful, I think it’s appealing to assume that also means we’re wise.

So, what is wisdom?  I’ve thought about this a good deal, and spent years observing and coming to conclusions about it. Wisdom is one of the six core leader attributes in my new book, Leading So People Will Follow, and we’ve broken it into five behaviors, so you know it when you see it (and so you can tell if you are or aren’t being wise).  Wise leaders:

  • Are deeply curious – listen!they’re like children in their will to explore, and to understand what they discover.  
  • Assess situations objectively (fair witness)they make every effort to see people and situations as accurately as possible.
  • Reflect on and learn from their experiencewhether things go well or badly, they glean everything they can, to improve going forward.
  • See patterns and share their insights with othersthey “pull back the camera” to see the core elements – and they say what they see.
  • Act based on what they believe to be morally rightthey’re clear about their own moral code, and they live by it.

As you can see, from my point of view, wisdom requires intelligence, thoughtfulness and analytical ability – but it’s more than any of them.  The essence of wisdom is to be insatiably curious and yet objective, and then to reflect on and decide how best to move forward, based on what’s you’ve discovered.

There’s something about wisdom that seems old-fashioned; the monarch in an ancient tale; the guru at the top of the mountain. And yet, I believe wisdom is more essential today than ever before. With so much information, opinion, and activity coming at us all the time, it’s critical to be able to step back and get curious about what’s really happening; to look for patterns; to make decisions based both on objectivity and on a sense of what is morally right.

Without wisdom to guide us through, this 21st century world can devolve into a barrage of images and emotions, overwhelming and senseless. With wisdom, our vision, passion and courage have a foundation.

Since I started by quoting a wise man on what wisdom isn’t, I’ll end by quoting another wise man on what it is:

It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
Henry David Thoreau

About Erika Andersen

Over the past 30 years, Erika has developed a reputation for creating approaches to learning and business-building that are custom tailored to her clients’ challenges, goals, and culture.

Visit Erika's Forbes.com Blog

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