Practical Wisdom

Part of my reading for my Master’s program was How To Grow Leaders by John Adair. It was written from a secular viewpoint on developing leadership. In it was a section that I was pleasantly surprised to read on wisdom. He explains that the wisdom concerning leadership is not a philosophical wisdom–it is a practical wisdom with clear judgment. 

This is the wisdom of God! Read Proverbs, the book of wisdom, and you will not find philosophy. You find instruction on how to have good judgment, how to live a better life, and how righteousness manifests itself in daily matters. John Adair arrived at the conclusion that God taught as a presupposition; his conclusion is God’s beginning. 

The wisdom that pleases God includes “fear of the LORD” (Pro. 1:7), it guides you to reject sinful men’s enticing (1:10), it teaches you “what is right and just and fair” (2:9), etc. Philosophy doesn’t help you live a better life as compared to this wisdom. Read Adair’s words,

“As one reaches the top of an organization one has to deal with a greater level of complexity than at team or operational level. … In particular, they may lack the kind of mind that an effective strategic leader needs. …

So practical wisdom, as opposed to sophia – the wisdom sought by the old philosophers- is the wisdom of leaders relating to practice: what way to go, what to do next, when to do it, how to do it and with whom to do it. These are questions and issues cannot be solved like mathematical problems or puzzles: they call for the exercise of judgement. What equips a person with good judgement?

I suggest that wisdom is a compound of three elements: intelligence, experience and goodness. The inclusion of the latter may cause surprise, but you may notice that we never call bad people wise.

We are only on the threshold of the study of phronesis, practical wisdom, in the context of leadership, and so I cannot tell you much more about it. Integrity is simply one aspect of goodness. Humility makes an early entrance on the stage, as does humour and–more surprisingly–a certain lightness of touch. The common idea is that we tend to grow wiser as we grow older. There is a counter-view, however, that the young are wise and that we lose wisdom as we get older – no fool like an old fool. Solomon was a byword for being wise as a young king, but where was wisdom in his later years?

Wisdom is a broad term, then, and suggests a rare combination of discretion, maturity, keenness of intellect, broad experience, extensive learning, profound thought and compassionate understanding. In its fullest application, wisdom implies the highest and noblest exercise of the moral nature as well as of the nature.

Yet wisdom always tends towards simplicity. It has no need of regular shaving with Occam’s Razor, because it is always simplifying, always mentally spring cleaning, always reducing things to essentials. As Lao Tzu said:

In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired; 

In pursuit of wisdom, every day something is dropped.

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