I’ve been involved in many situations where leaders were smarter than most of the people they were trying to influence, but were oblivious to the fact they were no wiser. That doesn’t work out very well. Being “the smartest person in the room” creates an opportunity for the leader to find the humility that enters hand-in-hand with wisdom.
First of all, wisdom is the great equalizer. All human beings have access to wisdom; no one person is innately wiser than another. It’s always possible to sort people out by “smartness”, but when it comes to wisdom, it can arise in an insight, at any moment, from anyone. When groups are working optimally, there’s huge respect for that, and a true willingness to listen for it and appreciate it, no matter the source.
Catching on to the difference between smartness and wisdom is a hallmark of the “Aha!” moments that strike people coming to understand how our understanding of life arises from the inside-out. It isn’t “learned,” it is realized from deep within our own capacity. People who used to be voluble — quick to answer and first to speak — become quiet and reflective as they look within for deeper answers. They are much less excited by the content of their analytical thinking. They are much more patient to await insights and simple common sense. They appreciate silence, the rich quiet that precedes fresh ideas, and enjoy it — rather than disrupting it with hasty reactions to questions or issues.
Let me give you a few examples. I once worked for a company that was always looking for small ways to improve the flow of work and save money. They had “experts” walking around to “figure out” what instructions they could give here and there across the company. Someone new in leadership came up with the notion that the people who actually DO things every day probably have better ideas than anyone else how to do them better, quicker or more easily. So they put little boxes with pads of “tipsheets” around hallways, elevators, meeting areas labelled TIPS (Thrifty Ideas Produce Savings) and offered small incentives for the TIPS of the month. Just as anticipated, the boxes started filling up with small, helpful ideas that would really make a difference. They had found the source of wisdom about the work.
Here’s another example.
A consulting firm that was once a client of mine was operated by extremely smart, highly educated people who constantly competed to offer the “best” answers. When they tried to work together to strategize about their own company, it was a nightmare. Everyone wanted to be “right” and “smart” and everyone tried to dominate the meetings. No one listened, at all, to anyone else. To attend their discussions was like listening to a symphony where every section of the orchestra was playing from a totally different score and there was no conductor. One of them said to me early on, with disdain: “Screw wisdom! Wisdom is for hippies and sissies. We’re playing in the big leagues. With the smart people.” Well, that was before they started losing money. Then wisdom began to look a little more appealing. When they finally agreed to a retreat and reluctantly calmed down, they started to realize that their arrogance was coming directly from their own insecurity. (Insecurity drives ego and urgency to prove oneself right.) Things changed quickly. Within a year, everything turned around: They were learning from each other’s experiences, learning from their own work, enjoying their company’s meetings and the shared challenges of looking to the future. One person couldn’t abide the quiet and good will and left the group, but the others found themselves happier and more successful, quietly confident that they were operating from strength, not raw power.
Does all this mean there’s no reason to be smart or get educated? Of course not. My colleague Bill Pettit often quotes Albert Einstein in this regard, saying, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift; the rational mind its faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Wisdom points to the knowledge we need, guiding us to use our intellect in less personal, more constructive ways. We think in service to the task at hand, not in service to our own self-importance. We paint the big picture, not a self-portrait, when we act and speak. We listen to others from the stance of “not knowing,” rather than thinking our way through others’ talking to come up with something to shoot them down or sound smarter. We are tuned into other’s (and our own) feelings, and nurture warm feelings and security, while overlooking bad feelings and insecurity that will pass if we don’t feed them.
It’s a huge relief to not know, and feel no pressure to have to know. The irony is that as soon as we quiet our minds enough to enter the unknown, all the answers flow into that space, gracefully.