“To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”
― Lao Tzu
Wisdom goes beyond knowledge – wisdom brings together experience, humility, knowledge, responsibility, accountability, morality/integrity, intuition and strategic vision (by strategic vision I mean the skill of looking down each of the possible pathways and sensing into the likely outcomes and fallout of each pathway). Wisdom also means not reducing things down to a simple cause/effect or black/white view, but bringing all of the complexity that belongs in the situation to the situation. Leaders unite people to work together to create a better world and cope with the changes and challenges that emerge as they pursue their goals. To do this, leadership requires negotiation and decision making. To improve your ability to make decisions and negotiate, it is helpful to appreciate the difference between knowledge, understanding and wisdom. They are easily misunderstood which can result in dangerous assumptions.
Knowledge enables you to know what the situation/thing actually is-you are aware of things. You gain knowledge by processing information. When we learn, our brain processes the information our senses feed it to generate knowledge. This is importance because it enables you to identify and engage with the situation. For example, when talking about climate change, one must first know what climate change is before you can engage in the conversation!
Crucial to this is awareness of boundaries as they enable you to distinguish between different things and situations. Agreeing where to draw boundaries, what should and should not be included, is an important and often challenging conversation. For example, should solar activity be included in the discussion on climate change? The challenge is to identify the right boundaries, the right things to include.
Understanding enables you to understand how the situation is being caused-you are aware of how things work. Understanding is generated by perceiving how things interact to cause a thing or situation to exist. When you say ‘I understand’ what you mean is that you are aware of what elements are interacting to cause a particular situation to exist. For example, if you say you understand climate change, you mean that you are aware of the manner in which all relevant elements interact to cause climate change. Understanding is important because it allows you to create and influence/control things and situations by changing the relevant causal relationships e.g. you understand how to influence climate change by reducing carbon emissions.
Wisdom is effective decision making, wise people are wise because they make the right decisions. Wisdom is generated by perceiving the consequences that cascade from things, situations and decisions. The more aware you become of consequences through time and space the greater your potential for wisdom. Wisdom is a function of perspective, the more perspective you have the greater your capacity for making better decisions. For example, a leader making a decision on climate change must recognise the consequences of their actions (or failure to act) in the present and the future, across economies and cultures. This is a highly complex task! Recognising the purpose of agents and situations facilitate this process. A wise leader assembles as much knowledge and understanding as possible to empower them to make the right decision in a timely manner. This is why wise leaders surround themselves with the best people. However, wisdom and leadership requires decision making not simply awareness. It is not enough to simply ‘ask for more information’, sometimes there is not enough time and this is where experience and judgement play a crucial role in success.
Being a better leader:- When negotiating and making decision, it is critical to be aware of what you think the situation is, how you think the situation is being generated and why the situation exists. Discussing these assumptions with others, especially your team members, can help avoid assumptions. Use the following questions to structure the conversation:
* What do you think are the key elements in the current situation? List the elements in order of priority (most important first) then compare notes with your counter-party or team members.
- How do you think these elements are interacting to create the current situation? Identify the three most important relationships and how they interact to create the situation and compare with people you trust.
- Why do you think the current situation exists? What is the purpose that brings everyone together? Try and define it as simply as possible and compare with your peers to see if they agree with you
In the information age, we often mistakenly assume that because we have a lot of information we know and understand the situation e.g. there are limits to how much any one person can know and understand about climate change. It is vital to be aware of your limits; in a complex, uncertain and rapidly changing world, it is unlikely that you alone have sufficient knowledge, understanding and wisdom to achieve the desired result. These must be gained through communicating and collaborating with others. Now you know the difference between knowledge, understanding and wisdom, you test yourself to see if you also understand it-try explaining it to a colleague or friend!