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Knowledge is Useful; Wisdom is Vital

by Duncan Ferguson on

As those of us in the Windy City know all too well, our Chicago Bears were a disaster this season. And while there were issues everywhere in the organization, the Bears problems could be tied directly to a leadership crisis. Two years ago they hired a coach who had the football knowledge needed but not necessarily the experience or wisdom required to lead effectively. Yesterday the Bears announced the hiring of a new coach, John Fox. And while he had plenty of head coaching experience, what really stood out from the team’s introductory news conference was his wisdom, developed by years of life on the ‘front lines’ of leadership. While the jury is still out on whether Mr. Fox can use this wisdom to navigate the cultural terrain of the Bears organization, it is clear he is a leader.

With this in mind, we would like to share some thoughts from one of our Vantage consultants, Ralph Mortensen, who recently wrote this article entitled, “ Knowledge versus Wisdom”.  Despite the fact that Ralph is not a Bears fan (he has suffered for years as a devoted follower of the Detroit Lions), his thoughts are interesting and timely. As always, please let us know what you think.

An old joke goes something like this:

An eager young person climbs a mountain to consult with a wise man.  The explorer bows before the great one and asks how to find happiness.  “My child, one finds happiness through good experiences” is the reply.  The seeker is puzzled and asks how to find good experiences.  The cryptic answer is “Through wisdom.”  Now thoroughly confused and a bit frustrated, the seeker asks how to gain wisdom.  The wise man lowers his gaze and answers sternly, “Bad experiences.”

Each of us is bombarded with information from reading, conversations, videos, web searches and other sources.  We take away lots of factual and interesting tidbits that enrich our thinking and our factual knowledge of work and life.  But there is one teacher that engages both our heads and our hearts: experience.

Years ago, the Center for Creative Leadership published an intriguing book titled The Lessons of Experience.  It captured the themes from extensive interviews with 191 executives about the most important lessons that they learned in their careers.  The minority of the themes were gleaned from classes.  The bulk of their learnings were the wisdom executives gained from facing various on-the-job challenges, and even setbacks.  Some of their formative lessons came from:

  • Being a supervisor for the first time
  • Having a task force assignment
  • Moving from a line job to a staff role
  • Starting or turning around a business
  • Having a particularly good (or bad) boss
  • Surviving a mistake
  • Dealing with personal trauma or setbacks
  • Working with a problem subordinate

In each case, what mattered is that the executive was on the front lines.  He or she had to face the situation to survive, succeed or get past a major obstacle.  Just as our mythical guru knew, their wisdom and skills were bolstered through being actively engaged in a situation and committed to dealing with it.  That distinction is one that we often miss in an information rich world.

So, why does it matter?  Simply stated, having the proverbial “skin in the game” raises the odds that a leader will step back and rethink what they are doing and why.  They have to deal with the consequences of their decisions and actions in ways that reading, expert presentations or simulations can’t duplicate.  Our view at Vantage is that there is no substitute for experience. While classroom education and training can be valuable, they cannot replace the wisdom of facing a cantankerous employee, a high-stakes assignment, or a significant mistake.

When we interview a job candidate, we want to understand what they have faced directly.  An MBA degreed professional with a finance concentration may never have created a financial statement and faced the consequences of sharing that information with the public.  Or, a talented sales representative may not have had direct reports and dealt with their needs, wants and frustrations.  We want to know what a candidate has lived with just as much, or more, than what they may have studied.   Have they gained the wisdom of firsthand experience?

We also encourage our clients to look at how they develop leaders.  Is there enough opportunity to fully engage their key people and challenge them to perform?  Without that, learning initiatives may simply be grounded in acquiring knowledge.  But, would you rather fly with a pilot who has read a lot about aviation, or one who has been at the controls before?  The answer is pretty clear.  At the very least, we advise our clients to be sure that their trainees have guided practice and coaching for important tasks.

So, our message is simple:  knowledge is useful.  Experience (and wisdom) is vital.

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