Take It From The Top


One of the most important traits of a good leader is their ability to make the right decisions. Wise decision-making, inevitably, involves moral, or ethical choices, and this occurs every time we take a decision. Hence it is not surprising that we find the comments we might define as wisdom to be essentially comments about relationships between people, or their relationship with society and the universe as a whole. These statements are generally globally recognised as relatively timeless, and they are insights that help us give meaning to the world about us.

The objective is simple: better decision-making. The only issue is that there are many different views over what we mean by ‘better’. At the core of all decision-making is the need to balance power with responsibility, as the vehicle for resolving the ‘better’ question. I would like to explore in this article why that is so difficult, and also to argue that examining the concept of wisdom can provide invaluable insights into how to achieve the most effective balance between power and responsibility, which is central to what our values mean in practice, as well as how we incorporate ethics into our decision-making.


Power and responsibility

The literature of Western sociology and management, or leadership, is full of references to power. How to get it, how to keep it and how to prevent it being taken away. In parallel, but rarely in the same studies, there is also an enormous amount of literature on the concept of responsibility.


While power is the ability to make things happen, responsibility is driven by attempting to answer the question: in whose interest is the power being used? Yet the two concepts of power and responsibility are simply different sides of the same coin. They are the yin and yang of our behaviour; they are how we balance ourselves with the interests of others, and it is this balance which lies at the core of what we mean by our values.


Experiments have shown that where there is a strong power-driven culture combined with little sense of responsibility, there is a high probability of megalomaniac or dictatorial behaviour. On the other hand, a high degree of responsibility with little power is a classic recipe for stress. In fact, this is a major cause of relatively unaddressed individual, organisational and societal stress, reinforced by many empowerment programmes that are more concerned with giving individuals more responsibility than real authority (ie power).


A further example has shown how low levels of both power and responsibility produce the ‘dropout’, whether individual, organisational or societal. This category is often viewed as an attractive option when individuals consider it as an alternative to stress. The ideal is to work towards a situation where there is an appropriate balance between power and responsibility. Although this is certainly a simplification, it does show how the underlying pattern of power and responsibility relationships influence individual behaviour, which is critical in areas related to ethical decision-making.


This basic relationship between power and responsibility is confirmed by the experience of several other organisational/societal dimensions. Organisational culture can be considered one that encourages the sharing of information, as opposed to a ‘knowledge is power’ culture. Almost all management techniques (Total Quality


Management, Learning Organisations and Knowledge Management, to name but three) are based on the assumption of a sharing-knowledge culture, and these techniques are unlikely to be effective within a ‘knowledge is power’ culture. In addition, as we move further into a knowledge economy, the effective sharing of information/knowledge will become even more critical for all our decision-making, whether as individuals, within organisations, or for society as a whole.


It is often argued that people oppose change, when in fact the underlying problem is that there is a difference of opinion on how to define progress – or what we mean by ‘better’. In a culture where those affected by change are either in control, or they trust those driving the change, there is usually general agreement on how progress is defined, and there is little opposition to any change initiatives. The greater the trust levels, the easier it will be to undertake change, simply because there is general agreement that the change will be equated with progress.


Despite all the talk of the need for change in many situations, what is really required is the need for greater emphasis on the concept of progress. Unfortunately, it is very rarely the case that all change can be equated with progress. This difference between change and progress is at the heart of most organisational difficulties in this area, partly because the vast majority of change is still top-down driven. This, combined with the widespread existence of a power-driven culture, has fostered a breakdown of trust in far too many previous situations.


The higher the level of responsibility-driven decision-making, the more effective and sustainable the consequences of that process will be, and the less regulation will be required to manage the interrelationship between the various stakeholders. In contrast, more and more regulations will be needed in an attempt to manage power-driven cultures where those regulations are designed, in theory, to render the decision-making processes more accountable, and so encourage more responsible behaviour. If we all behaved more responsibly in our relationships with each other, there would be much less pressure for more and more regulation and legislation.


Rights and responsibilities


The emphasis on ‘rights’ during the twentieth century (the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Declaration of Human Rights being two examples) could be seen as detrimental. Perhaps the stress should have been on a combination of rights with responsibilities. In almost all current ethical debates (as well as legal and other regulatory structures), the ultimate objective is to try to achieve the appropriate balance of rights and responsibilities. If individuals behaved more responsibly and ethically towards each other, it would be much more likely that the net result would be a higher standard of ethical decision-making overall. This is a classic case where the outcome and the process are closely interlinked.


It is worth mentioning that probably 90% of violent behaviour arises because there is an imbalance, or discontinuity, between power (self-focused), and our sense of responsibility (other-focused), which leads to a breakdown in the ability to communicate effectively between those involved. This breakdown becomes even more acute and problematic if it is combined with an inability to undertake a constructive dialogue in the first place. Leadership is nothing more than the ‘well-informed, responsible use of power’. The more the leadership-related decisions are responsibility-driven (ie the more they are genuinely concerned with the wider interest), the better-informed the decisions will be. What’s more, the subsequent results are much more likely to reflect genuinely the long-term interests of all concerned.




There is an enormous amount of literature that explores wisdom, and this can provide useful insights into what works and what doesn’t. The word itself has been widely misused and misunderstood, but what do we actually mean by wisdom? And why is it an important subject both for organisations and for society? My interest in these questions arose particularly from two directions. First, my interest in strategy in the early 1990s was very influenced by the widespread discovery (or, more strictly, rediscovery) of the importance of Organisational Learning, largely thanks to the work of Peter Senge and his book The Fifth Discipline. This is reflected in two relevant wise quotes: ‘Effective learning is the only sustainable competitive advantage’, and ‘Only if the rate of learning is greater than the amount of change are we likely to find change equated with progress’.


The second dimension arose in the late 1990s, when I was involved in a number of ‘futures’-related activities in the run-up to the Millennium. In fact, the recent move into the new Millennium was probably the most focused point in human history for exploring these questions. In these discussions there was an enormous emphasis on technology. But I found that almost no one had looked at what we had learned over the past two or three thousand years that was really important to pass onto the next generation – namely, wisdom.


Wisdom is something everybody seems to talk about. We all appear to want more of it, yet few people, it seems, reflect on what wisdom really is, especially in the management and leadership literature. And there is little consideration of how can we learn wisdom more effectively. An overriding objective of these brief comments is simply that it would be very useful for us to try to rehabilitate the word and the concept of wisdom. Of course, wisdom is one thing; ‘being wise’ is quite another. Being wise is certainly more than the ability to recycle wisdom. In essence, being wise involves the ability to apply wisdom effectively in practice.


Wisdom statements


Wisdom statements are those that appear to be useful in helping us all make the world a better place, both now and in the future. They are not absolute statements; they are simply statements that reflect our understanding of behaviour patterns that appear to work in a positive, sustainable direction. But a statement of wisdom is only useful if it also checks out with our own experience.


Of course, that relatively simple objective is not quite as easy as it sounds, for at least two reasons.


First, the word ‘better’ inevitably means that we are involved in considering the whole subject of values. A critical part of the content of any wisdom statement is the extent to which it incorporates judgements about values. In fact, that is a critical part of the definition of what we mean by wisdom. It does not mean that all statements that reflect values can be defined as wisdom; the extra dimension required is that wisdom statements are widely accepted and have ‘stood the test of time’. In addition, while all wisdom is reliable, useful information, not all reliable information can be considered wisdom. Wisdom statements are insights into values, people and relationships that work. They are not simply technical statements that have no human or relationship dimension.


Second, it is important to recognise that trying to ‘make the world a better place for us all’ can easily run into potential areas of conflict. For example, making things ‘better’ for some people can be at the expense of making it worse for others. Much of the conflict in this area is because different people use different time horizons when they talk about the future. Some people are obsessed with tomorrow, while others are primarily concerned with what they perceive to be the needs of the next hundred years. How or whether differences in perspective are resolved is critically dependent on the quality of dialogue between the parties.


Dialogue facilitates the transfer of technical knowledge, as well as being an invaluable part of personal development. Having a quality dialogue over values is not only the most important issue we need to address, but it is often the most difficult. In this area, there is a paradox with the concept of passion, the importance of which is emphasised in much current management literature. If this passion is exhibited by a power-driven person who tends to think they have all the answers – and they are all too often not interested in listening – then holding a positive dialogue can easily become problematic! The only way to ‘square that circle’ is to ensure that all the other people involved are convinced of their integrity, and that they are reflecting a genuine concern for the wider interest in the decisions that are taken. The greatest challenge that most organisations face is how to manage effectively power-driven, passionate people in such a way that their priority is encouraged to be consistent with the long-term interests of the organisation as a whole, rather than just with their own personal interests. Incorporating this wider (responsibility-driven) interest into our decision-making at all levels, irrespective of whether they are personal, organisational or societal, is the ultimate test of both values and leadership.




Wisdom is by far the most sustainable dimension of the information/knowledge industry. But is it teachable? It is learned somehow, and as far as I know, there is no ‘values’/wisdom gene. Consequently, there are things that we can all do to help manage the learning processes more effectively, although detailed consideration of these are outside the scope of this article.


We need to recognise that the more change that is going on in society, the more important it is that we make sure our learning is as effective as possible. That is the only way we have any chance of being able to equate change with progress. If we want to have a better future, the first – and most important – thing that we have to do is improve the quality and effectiveness of our learning.


We are trying to improve things. We are trying to make progress. Of course, the concepts behind the words ‘improve’, ‘better’ and ‘progress’ are powerfully values-driven. Organisations and individuals don’t have a problem with change, only with how we perceive progress. Our success in this area is critically dependent on the quality of our dialogue, as discussed earlier. Unfortunately, it is not easy to be optimistic about current trends, when the media is so focused on sensationalism and confrontation.


A wise society


In recent years, we have seen a considerable effort to move people from the idea of ‘working harder’ to ‘working smarter’. But what is really needed is to move beyond ‘working smarter’ to ‘working wiser’. We need to move from the ‘knowledge society’ to ‘the wise society’. And the more we move along that progression, the more we need to recognise that we are moving towards a situation where the important issues primarily reflect the quality of our values, rather than the quantity of our physical effort. If we want to improve the quality of our decision-making, the focus needs to be not only on the quality of our information but, perhaps even more importantly, on the ‘right’ use of that information.


Stakeholder analysis can help understand the map of the power/responsibility relationships within decision-making processes. All decisions require trade-offs, and this involves judgement between the interests of the various stakeholders, within a framework of a genuine concern for the long term – and the wider interest. It is also the case that where there is no common agreement over objectives, values are invariably the dominant agenda in any discussion. It is here that wisdom, reflected in both content and process, can be critical. How often do we seem to be either obsessed with technology, or so focused on the experience of the here-and-now, that the issue of wisdom appears to be virtually ignored? Are we really focused on what is important, rather than on just what is easy to measure?


Overall, wisdom is a very practical body of sustainable knowledge that has an incredibly useful contribution to our understanding of the world. Such an approach enables us all to make ‘better’ decisions, lead ‘better’ lives and experience wiser leadership, particularly in areas that involve explicit, or implicit, ethics- and values-related issues. If we cannot take wisdom seriously, we will pay a very high price for this neglect. We need to foster greater respect for other people, particularly those who have views, or reflect values, that we do not agree with. This requires us to develop our capacity to have constructive conversations about the issues that divide us, and that in itself would go a long way to ensure that we improve the quality of our decision-making for the benefit of all in the long term.