The APQC Blog

How Wise Are Your Leaders?

As the end of the year approaches, I have been reflecting on the concept of wisdom.  Supposedly wisdom results from knowledge and experience. What are the characteristics of wise leaders? Here is what I think is the #1 characteristic:

They don’t sacrifice our collective future for their current gain.

We have wonderful examples of leaders who think long term: Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway and Jeff Bezos of Amazon are famous for forgoing short term gain for long term growth.  Anne Mulcahy of Xerox had to make some tough staffing and business decisions to save Xerox for the long term.  It may have looked like she was thinking short term, but history has proved her wise.

Many lament how our leaders especially in publicly traded firms manage quarter to quarter.  In my interview earlier this year with Adam Grant, he also reflected on some leaders as “takers” (rather than givers). Unfortunately, there is also no shortage of examples of unethical and illegal behavior where personal and short term gain trumped the long term well-being of others:  Bernie Madoff cheating people of millions in retirement; Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling of Enron booking profits on sales that hadn’t happened to drive up the stock price. 

To further discuss the squishy concept of wisdom and how leaders get it, I spoke with Larry Prusak as part of APQC’s “Big Thinkers, Big Ideas” interview series.  Larry is a long time guide in the arena of knowledge management. In fact, Larry Prusak and Tom Davenport co-authored an early book on the subject, Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know

Larry had other examples of leaders who acted unwisely to the detriment of future generations.

Larry Prusak:

When the financial crisis hit, I was in Boston where we have the best and brightest from Harvard and MIT. I go to these universities sometimes, giving talks and meeting with teachers. Many of these schools’ graduates—about 60-70% of the graduates of both schools, both MBAs and economists—go to Wall Street. They almost took down the whole world economy. They had significant knowledge about finance, but no wisdom.

As a society, the people we’re elevating to run our companies and to run the country are often people I would call “puzzle solvers”: people who are very good at solving technical puzzles. You could call them technocrats. They’re people who have a great deal of knowledge on a certain topic such as economics or social policies. What sets technocrats apart from those that have wisdom is the consideration of how the outcomes will affect others—in the short and long term…”You act with the shadow of the future,” as Aristotle said.  

To read about how organizations can help their leaders become wiser, go to my interview with Larry Prusak.

As you reflect on the passage of another year, what are you doing to become wiser? 


You can read the full Larry Prusak interview here.

Listen to the full Larry Prusak interview here.

Check out the rest of my Big Thinkers, Big Ideas interviews on APQC’s Knowledge Base.

Subscribe to the Big Thinkers, Big Ideas podcast on Itunes or on APQCPodcasts on Podbean.

You can connect with me on Twitter @odell_carla