The role of wisdom

Wisdom is the mental and emotional skill to respond fruitfully to what life throws at us and to make the right choices.

Lloyd Geering

I have just finished reading “Farther than any man – The rise and fall of Captain James Cook” by Martin Dugard. The book is an absolutely riveting read and a great insight into the idiosyncrasies of leadership. 


Cook came from humble farming background and yet developed a passion for the sea. He was a gifted sailor, starting his career in the merchant navy and getting to a position where he was offered his own ship.  He turned it down because he wanted to join the Royal Navy.  Joining the navy meant he had to start his career all over again; but it was worse than that because the Royal Navy had a culture that unless you were nobility you could not get a commission.  Cook was extremely introverted and a real loner, but also extremely curious.  He always wanted to learn new things and was self-taught. 


Once accepted into the Royal Navy, Cook quickly proved he was extra-ordinary.  His understanding of Navigation (self-taught) was exemplary.  He was determined to be the first person to break down the class structure and get a commission from outside the nobility.  In many ways he comes across as lacking sound political skills – he was however visionary, determined and courageous.  He also comes across as someone who wasn’t overly concerned with what others thought of him.  He was more interested in his self-belief and that of his wife Elizabeth coupled with an intellectual curiosity. 


I don’t want to dwell on his amazing career too much as you are better to read the actual book than my interpretation.  The issue is that Cook established an international reputation with his work on “Endeavour” and then the first expedition with “Resolution”.  What happened next is tragic and a lesson for all in leadership roles.  He lost direction within himself and his self-belief went beyond sensible.  He lost track of what had made him great and instead believed in his “greatness”.  His ego/Id became the driver instead of his vision of finding new lands.  He became incredibly arrogant and this lead to his eventual demise in Hawaii.  Although self-belief plays a role in leadership, it must not be the driving force.  The good of the organisation/cause/people should be the driver and this makes the leader take a more balanced view. 


Lloyd Geering in “Such is life” describes wisdom with the following phrases: political insight, knowledge of nature, discernment of right and wrong and even technical skill.  Wise people are to take full responsibility for their own lives and not hold other people or forces accountable for their actions. Wisdom is about the Logos or reason. 


So how do the lessons from James Cook and Lloyd Geering apply to those in business and everyday life?


Years ago when I was lecturing, one of the assignments I set my students was to analyse the decision making process of managers.  The students were upset at the learning they unearthed.  The bulk of decisions made by managers were done more from intuition than logic.  It was after they had made the decision that they retrospectively came up with the logic for what had been decided – unless the logic was flawed and then they went into defensive mode.  To make every decision based on logic means gathering all the evidence first and foremost and then analysing it to work out what is the most logical decision.  The problem is that most Managers do not have time to go through such a process and the organisation won’t invest in the expense of such a process.  This makes the decision making process into a bit of a lottery model.  In making the lottery comment, in an organisation there should be robust procedures to check out the quality of management decisions and this is primarily determined by the Board.  The Board should be the sages/wise people of the organisation.  The role of the Board is to demonstrate wisdom in their decision making.


In our everyday life we don’t have Boards to check the wisdom of our decisions.  Equally there is often not a lot of evidence to analyse to work out the correct decision.  Take parenting of teenagers as an illustration.  I suspect parenting teenagers is one of the most complex and difficult tasks we face as adults and the yet the repercussions of doing the task wrong are far reaching.  This raises the debate of whether you can be young and wise or is wisdom associated with experience?  I know it is much easier to raise grandchildren than it was to raise your own kids.  I suspect that part of it being easier, is that you are not closely involved with the grandkids on an hourly/daily basis, unless you are one of the interfering grandparents.  This leads me to the belief that part of being wise is having a sense of observation and distance. 


Observation and distance was how Cook operated in his early years.  Although curious, he knew his position was tenuous because he had broken into the nobility circles.  He also knew he could never be nobility because that was a birth right and this lack “of right” kept his ego in check.  However, once acclaimed as the greatest explorer ever, his ego took over.  His wisdom quotient was lost.  How true is this of many a “leader” in our society?  The financial markets have produced a few who have fallen from grace.  On the outside it appears their self-importance took over from where they had once held a sense of observation and distance. 


There are some questions that fall out of this:


  • Who observes you from a distance and objectively critiques your decisions?
  • What evidence are you gathering about any of your decisions that they are “right decisions” rather than ones based on your personal needs/wants?
  • Which plays a greater role in your decision making – reason or intuition?
  • What analysis and thought goes into your decisions before they are made?  Professionally/personally?