Dr Jane Gaukroger


Extract from Cultivating Wisdom – A collection of essays for leaders and organisational developers, 2020.

Situating organisational wisdom

The western cultural and intellectual tradition is built on the foundations of early mythological, philosophical and religious searches for wisdom and a shared purpose or telos – synthesising intellectual inquiry in search of the common good and a life of virtue.

This interest in philosophy as a search for wisdom has dimmed. However, post-modern disenchantment with the capacity of rationality and science to address the world’s problems re- ignited academic interest in wisdom around the millennium, initially in psychology, which has seen wisdom research burgeoning. Researchers and writers included in Sternberg’s (1990; 2005; 2019) three major explorations of wisdom are mainly from psychology, but there has been coalescing interest from philosophy, organisation studies, business ethics, education and other parts of the academic research community in the concept of wisdom as relevant to organisations and society.

A number of anthologies have been devoted to wisdom more specifically in the organisational context (Srivastva & Cooperrider, 1998; Kessler & Bailey, 2007; Rowley & Gibbs, 2008; Thompson & Bevan, 2013; Kupers & Pauleen, 2013). An interdisciplinary Center for Practical Wisdom was established in 2016 at the University of Chicago which brings together research perspectives and there is a Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

But despite developing interest amongst academics, attention to wisdom as a useful, explicit, concept for organisational practice seems weak. References to organisational wisdom do not have a noticeable place in the organisational and leadership development literature and programmes.

Amongst the early organisational wisdom writers Srivastva and Cooperrider (1998, p 2) thought attention to wisdom was perhaps felt to be ‘pretentious’. Csikszentnihalyi and Rathunde (1990, p 36) pointed to wisdom’s benefits as ‘slower to appear and less obvious’ than the ‘immediate effects’ of specialised knowledge which dominates the current age.

Looking across the organisational writings it is perhaps useful to begin by exploring at how they are defining wisdom. This is slightly daunting given that wisdom is seen by Chia, Holt and Yuan (2013, p 53) as ‘enigmatic … intractable … elusive’. However, Csikszentmihalyi and Rathmunde (1990, p 31) noted convergence across ancient and modern definitions to a ‘‘universal’… awareness of interrelated systems’. Kessler and Bailey (2007: lxx) noted that there is ‘both a Wisdom and many wisdoms’ but ‘there are common elements’.

Drawing on a number of writers on wisdom from the organisational setting over the past 30 years (as shown on Table 1) brings some of this convergence into relief around interconnectedness and serving a common good.

Table 1. Converging organisational wisdom descriptions

‘organisational responsiveness to human and social needs and moral and spiritual promptings’Khandwalla (1998, p 190)
‘some wiser managers … resist the latest fads and the institutional pressures of the stock market and business community and instead follow their own convictions about what is best for their organisations or society’Beyer and Nino (1998, p 93)
‘wisdom is not merely a result of inquiring and reflecting on the relationship between self and society, but it is also the embodiment of action taken to transform self and society towards a better whole’Bierly, Kessler and Christensen (2000, p 603)
‘organisational and managerial wisdom is the application to professional pursuits of a deep understanding and fundamental capacity for living well… to lead the good life and enable it for others’Kessler and Bailey (2007, p lxvii)
‘community ethos’… ‘where self- interest is that of humanity’Rowley and Gibbs (2008, p 364-65)
‘capacity and the active desire to realise what is of value in life, for oneself and others’Maxwell (2014, p 22)
‘practical wisdom has the capacity to integrate virtuous good, practical and artful ways of life … for dealing with the ethics and pragmatics of everyday life’Kupers and Pauleen (2013, p 1)
‘the ideal of balancing the requirements of profit while wisely managing the implicit and explicit responsibilities of companies towards wider society’Thompson and Bevan (2013, p 2)
‘to provide a service to society and thereby to contribute to the collective good’Chia, Holt and Li Yuan (2013, p 63)
‘doing the right thing for the greater good, all things considered’Hays (2013, p 145)
‘responsibilities to the planet rather than just to shareholders or stakeholders’>McKenna and Rooney (2019, p 668)

Characterising organisational wisdom

The question at the heart of the research which informs this collection was whether re-emerging interest in wisdom could help organisations and, if so, what are the implications for developing it (Gaukroger, 2016).

The research involved an inquiry with a group of leaders and developers working across sectors, some globally. A detailed analysis of their individual reflections, group dialogue and stories of wisdom in practice produced a framework which characterises organisational wisdom.

This framework has six key characteristics. Each characteristic begins with ‘co’, reflecting with-ness, connection, unity and integration.

The first three characteristics – consciousness, conscience and context – bring a focus on knowing. In this, they are reflective of our inner worlds and how we think and feel and decide things. The latter three characteristics – collaboration, compassion and courage – bring more focus to our doing. In this they attend to our behaviour in the outer world.

Wisdom is not simply held in the head and heart. It is embodied and lived. High level definitions of the six characteristics are shown on Table 2.

Table 2. Organisational wisdom – the ‘knowing’ characteristics

ConsciousnessKnowing from multiple intelligences: intellectual, emotional, experiential, moral, spiritual. Balanced with humility about the limits of this knowing. Present, open, listening, taking in information, reflective, learning.
ConsciencePurpose is to serve the common good operating ethically and with integrity. Humane values guide choices. Personal fulfilment and the fulfilment of others is intertwined.
ContextRecognising complexity and multiple perspectives in the organisation and more widely. Attentive and attuned to what is happening over time. Adapting to circumstances. Creative and flexible.

Table 3. Organisational wisdom – the ‘doing’ characteristics

CollaborationValuing and accessing the wisdom held across peoples. Individuals hold their own wisdom and collective wisdom emerges through listening and dialogue, in an environment of trust and openness.
CompassionConscience enacted through generosity, kindness, fostering development and growth and knowing and valuing diverse strengths. Humane action. Care for all, by all.
CourageHaving the courage to embody wisdom. Courage and risk are finely balanced, finding an appropriate place between fearfulness and fearlessness.

Having defined organisational wisdom characteristics, it is also possible to see these operating at different levels. This builds on a number of psychologists and organisational writers including Torbert (1998) and Sternberg (2003) who see interlinking of relationships and interests in wisdom across intrapersonal (first person), interpersonal (second person) and extrapersonal (third person) dimensions.

First, organisational wisdom is seen as present at the level of the individual character. Second, organisational wisdom is seen in the group or team character. Third, organisational wisdom is seen in the processes, systems, infrastructure and activities which together with people constitute the wider organisational character. Fourth, there is a relationship with the overarching character of society. This latter character was evoked in the research as ‘bigger forces’ which may support wisdom (eg climate change consciousness) or potentially pull against it (eg an overly dominant economic consciousness).

The integrated framework at Figure 1 connects the six characteristics and four characters.

Implications for practice

The framework offers potential for those working in and with organisations, to consider the wisdom present at different levels and to use this to guide development (explored in more depth in Essay 9). The framework is more of a compass than a diagnostic. It is intended to prompt reflection and bring a new perspective to existing measures of progress and impact rather than to supersede them.

Taking a specific characteristic, at the level of the individual working in the organisation there may be strength in ‘conscience’ with attention to personal ethics and integrity. But some policies at the level of the organisation character may be less consistent with it, for example tax avoidance practices or huge pay differentials between those at the top and bottom of the organisation.

In considering organisational character it may be relevant to comment on links and distinctions with culture which gets much attention in organisational literature. The distinction is not clear cut. In the aftermath of corporate scandals, we are used to hearing commentators note the need for culture change. A wisdom orientation might suggest this too easily depersonalises responsibility – with culture discussed in relativistic and amoral terms.

An alternative focus on organisational wisdom, character and characteristics brings greater proximity and responsibility. At a basic, linguistic level, we would not use the term culture in relation to an individual, but in this framework, it is linguistically and conceptually possible to use ‘character’ across the levels. In this way, the framework offers a quality of interconnectedness which seems consistent with the universal perspective of wisdom and brings attention to consistency across the whole.

A further question might be whether the knowing characteristics precede the doing ones. If we want to foster wisdom in our organisations, is it best to begin with a focus on the first three? In wisdom, knowing and doing are fundamentally intertwined. Thinking and practice connect. We might notice that mindfulness practices are increasingly being used in organisational development activities.

These can bring calm and insight – hopefully increasing our ‘awakeness’ (consciousness), commitment to our world and our fellow humans (conscience) and deeper understanding of and sensitivity to our own and others’ situations (context). But a further challenge is the practical, embodied implications so that wisdom speaks through our work with others towards shared goals (collaboration), our care for others (compassion) and our willingness to stand up for wisdom and to speak out when people, organisations or society are not wise (courage). As Gilbert and Choden (2013, p 207) remind us ‘Historically, mindfulness has always been based on ethical values and allied to a body of wisdom; it has not stood alone as a skill in its own right’.

The following essays explore the characteristics in more depth and what they call from us.

In embarking on this consideration of wisdom we should be encouraged by McKenna and Rooney (2019, p 668) who strike a positive note about wise leadership:

‘This is ancient knowledge lost which is now being regained. We can be better at this and we have no reason not to be. The future is still hopeful’.


Beyer, J. M., and Nino, D. (1998). Facing the future: backing courage with wisdom. In Srivastva, S., and Cooperrider, D. L. (Eds) Organisational Wisdom and Executive Courage. San Francisco: The New Lexington Press.

Bierly, P. E. III., Kessler, E. H., and Christensen, E. W. (2000). Organisational learning, knowledge and wisdom. Journal of Organisational Change Management. Vol. 13. No. 6.

Chia, R., Holt, R., and Yuan, L. (2013). In Praise of Strategic Indirection: Towards a Non-instrumental Understanding of Phronesis as Practical Wisdom. In Thompson, M. J., and Bevan, J. (Eds) Wise Management in Organisational Complexity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., and Rathmunde, K. (1990). Psychology of wisdom: evolutionary interpretation. In Sternberg, R. J. (Ed) Wisdom – Its nature, origins and development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gaukroger, J. E. (2016). Organisational Wisdom – what is the contribution of the organisational development practitioner. PhD thesis

Gardner, H. (2010). Good Work: Theory and practice. Cambridge: Harvard University. Available at

Gergen, M. M., and Gergen, K. J. (1998). The relational rebirthing of wisdom and courage. In Srivastva, S., and Cooperrider, D. L. (Eds). Organisational Wisdom and Executive Courage. San Francisco: The New Lexington Press.

Gilbert, P., and Choden. (2013). Mindful compassion. London: Robinson

Goodpaster, K.E. (2007). Conscience and Corporate Culture. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Hays, J. (2013). Wicked Problem: Educating for Complexity and Wisdom. In Thompson, M. J., and Bevan, J. (Eds). Wise Management in Organisational Complexity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kessler, E. H., and Bailey, J. R. (2007). Handbook of Organizational and Managerial Wisdom. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc.

Khandwalla, P. N. (1998). Thorny Glory: Toward Organisational Greatness. In Srivastva, S., and Cooperrider, D. L. (Eds). Organisational Wisdom and Executive Courage. San Francisco: The New Lexington Press.

Kupers, W. M., and Pauleen, D. J. (2013). A Handbook of Practical Wisdom – Leadership, Organisation and Integral Business Practice. Farnham: Gower Publishing Limited.

Maxwell, N. (2014). How universities can help create a wiser world: the urgent need for an academic revolution. Exeter: Imprint Academic.

McKenna, B., and Rooney, D. (2019). Wise Leadership. In Sternberg, R. J., and Gluck, J. (Eds). The Cambridge Handbook of Wisdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rowley, J., and Gibbs, P. (2008). From learning organisation to practically wise organisation. The Learning Organisation, Vol 15 Iss: 5 pp. 356-372.

Srivastva, S., and Cooperrider, D.L. (1998). Organisational Wisdom and Executive Courage. San Francisco: The New Lexington Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (1990). Wisdom – Its nature, origins and development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (2003). Wisdom, Intelligence, and Creativity Synthesized. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (2005). A Handbook of Wisdom – Psychological Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J and Gluck, J. (2019) (Eds). The Cambridge Handbook of Wisdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, M. J., and Bevan, D. (2013). Wise Management in Organisational Complexity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Torbert, W. R. (1998). Developing wisdom and courage in organising and sciencing. In Srivastva, S., and Cooperrider, D. L. (Eds). Organisational Wisdom and Executive Courage. San Francisco: New Lexington Press.