Why did I get so interested in wisdom?
I am fascinated and profoundly grateful for organisations. They matter greatly to all our lives.
For the last twenty-six years I’ve been privileged to work as a consultant and coach with many different organisations in central and local government, the NHS, private and third sectors. I have held in mind a view, attributed to Freud, that there are two things people need to be able to do well in life – to love and to work. My hope has been to support people and organisations work to well.
Of course, there is much to appreciate in organisational life and what is achieved through them. But in recent years – with climate change, the financial crash, various corporate scandals and the expanding reach of high-tech companies – I have felt sadness seeing how organisations can operate in ways which don’t serve us well. The human ‘resource’ mindset which has dominated much development practice for decades can be dehumanising and people feel a prevailing sense of complexity, pressure and flux. Traditional business concepts of rational strategy and transformation do not seem to reflect the messy demands of the real world.
I wanted to explore this more deeply and set off on some doctoral research. I particularly began reading around ‘orthodox’ business topics including ethics, corporate social responsibility and leadership in complexity.
On my way I discovered a less-travelled path.
A small number of researchers and writers from psychology and organisational studies were explicitly giving attention to wisdom in both the personal and organisational spheres as a response to many complex challenges facing us – with some seeing an inter-connection of wisdom at the intrapersonal (me), interpersonal (us) and extrapersonal (outer world) levels. Moreover, what began with a handful of writers at the millennium was proliferating.
Wisdom really resonated for me. The more I read, the more I felt our big challenges – sustainability, globalisation, AI, political polarisation, inequality, identity, mental health – were crying out for wisdom.
I started to ask leaders and developers working with organisations to share their stories of wisdom in practice. I was conscious that although the concept of wisdom was becoming more present in organisational studies, it was not being voiced in organisations. Why was this? Was it too early to see an impact on practice, was it seen as irrelevant or were darker forces resisting it?
So, what is wisdom?
Wisdom is an ancient concept and a focus for philosophers through the ages. The word philosophy is the conjunction of the Greek words meaning ‘love of’ (philos) and ‘wisdom’ (sophia). For the
ancients it was often linked to character, virtue and the search for a good life. Aristotle argued that it is only by cultivating virtue that we can know what is good for us.
Today, the words wise and wisdom remain everyday use. Perhaps I’m attuned to noticing, but they are used quite frequently in news articles. We seem to know they matter – but not pay much active attention to their meaning.
Wisdom can seem an elusive concept and there are differences in writers’ definitions. Perhaps the
‘hard to pin-down’ quality in wisdom is inevitable if we accept the notion that it isn’t about rules and applies when there are choices to be made and dilemmas to be faced.
I’ve found insights from various recent wisdom writers helpful.
Nicholas Maxwell – a UK academic writing on wisdom – sees it as the ‘capacity and the active desire to realise what is of value in life, for oneself and others’. Wisdom carries the weight of attention to what is good for us individually and collectively with all the tensions therein.
Australian writer, Jay Hays, puts it more prosaically in suggesting that wisdom calls us to ‘get over ourselves’.
The relationship between wisdom and knowledge is important. In ‘Choruses from The Rock’ TS Eliot asked: ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge’? There is a paradox and a humility in wisdom – the more we know the more we realise we don’t know.
In the western intellectual tradition, we have emphasised ‘head’ knowing with a post-Enlightenment dominance of rational, cognitive modes of understanding. Our education system puts heavy emphasis on imparted knowledge, tested through exams. We have perhaps lost contact with a broader range of intelligences from heart, body and spirit. More balanced knowing seems important for wisdom. The most prolific of recent wisdom writers – Robert Sternberg – argues that it is developed through nurturing higher order thinking skills, oriented towards a common good. Again, there is interdependence and a moral dimension to wisdom.
But it is also clear that wisdom is not simply a high ideal.
It is embodied. It is about inner knowing and outer action. It calls for practical kindness, collaboration and courage in our everyday lives. Can we imagine calling a person wise who does not show compassion for themselves, others and the world?
Can we at least reassure ourselves that we grow wiser with age? Even here there are differences of view.
The figure of the wise elder draws on a notion that wisdom develops with experience. But several writers suggest we lose wisdom with age, reminiscent of Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations Ode’ – ‘trailing clouds of glory do we come’ but we see the ‘vision splendid…fade into the common light of day’. We may need to re-discover lost wisdom by seeing the world through the eyes of the child. In ‘Falling Upwards’ Richard Rohr suggests we need to ‘unlearn’ a lot.
I feel deeply that cultivating wisdom matters for us all. It is an ongoing search. Osbeck and Robinson put it starkly: ‘we have not outgrown or out-scienced a need for wisdom; we have grown restless and distracted and impatient with what wisdom requires’.
Now, in my own development work, I invite individuals and organisations to think about four key areas linked to wisdom: Quest – our purpose and what we stand for – Exemplars – who and what guides us on our wisdom quest – Rituals – the everyday practices we adopt – Witness – our lives lived wisely.
Perhaps in 2020, with a climate change emergency, we will bring our attention back to it.