Why We Need Wiser, not just Smarter, Leadership

By Dr. Sarah Taylor, Founder & Director of ThriveWise

Humanity is at a tipping point. The world is in a state of precariousness whereby our technical progress has staggeringly outpaced our evolution in the realm of wisdom. The consequences in our interconnected world are stark. As Frederick LaLoux puts it, ‘it is probably no exaggeration, but sad reality, that the very survival of many species, ecosystems, and perhaps the human race itself hinges on our ability to move to higher forms of consciousness’ (2014 p.5). Leadership has a vital role to play in this shift to higher forms of consciousness, but so often our expectations are disappointed. By tapping into the disciplines of cognitive neuroscience, positive psychology and neurobiology, we can help leaders thrive. But without wisdom, to what end does their thriving serve? As Haemin Sunim warns, ‘the most dangerous people are those who have passion but lack wisdom’.


The Escalating Leadership Challenge of our Times

It’s increasingly recognised that leaders are operating in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) terrain. The game is not the same as it was 30 years ago. Leaders need to continually reinvent their organisations to adapt to new technologies, changing consumer trends and demographic shifts. They face so-called ‘wicked issues’ that are not amenable to a traditional ‘command, predict and control’ mindset. These challenges are often tensions or paradoxes to be managed rather than problems to be solved once and for all. A VUCA environment calls for decision making that recognises that everything is contextual, interconnected and evolving. It calls for actions that consider the bigger picture whilst not losing touch with local realities. Above all, it calls for ways of being that unleash the best in people so they can direct their energy and diverse perspectives towards a shared goal. Simply doing more and working harder and smarter will not be enough to help leaders rise to the challenge. Likewise, learning new skills, knowledge and competencies is only part of the puzzle. Leaders need the wisdom to think in more complex, systemic, strategic and interdependent ways and use these capacities for the greater good. Yet sadly researchers have identified wisdom as the missing link in providing effective leadership in the 21st century (Krahnke 2014).


Our Loss of Practical Wisdom

The industrial revolution left a legacy of mechanistic ways of working. It created a fixation on standardisation, efficiency, productivity and regulation through objective rules and criteria. We turned ourselves into human doings rather than human beings. Barry Schwartz argues that this has led to moral integrity being replaced by external control since we have created rules that prevent people from having to think for themselves and exercise their own judgement to act responsibly. In other words, what Aristotle called our practical wisdom has been eroded. Aristotle believed that wisdom was not for theoretical debate but for practical application. It is what helps us do the right thing, for the right reason at the right time. Given the pressing need for wiser action in these radically uncertain times, it’s a shame wisdom isn’t yet a big part of the narrative. Admittedly, it’s traditional connotations with bearded old men doesn’t exactly scream ‘cutting edge’. But practical wisdom is deeply experiential, pragmatic and embodied. It’s more than simply the accumulation of knowledge and experience gained over time. Its what enables us to courageously push boundaries, look beyond the obvious and get out of auto-pilot mode. At ThriveWise, we have developed the WISER© model to provide a way for any leader (defined by mindset rather than position) to embark on their journey from smart to wise:


WISER© Model



WISER leaders integrate multiple intelligences – head, heart and gut. Reason and logic are balanced with values of compassion, empathy, curiosity, humility and kindness. They show up in their full authentic humanity and acknowledge and work on their shadow side as well as leverage their strengths.



WISER leaders are purposeful yet remain open to possibility and the unexpected. They’re aware of their hardwired mindtraps and conditioned responses and adopt intentional daily practices to activate the higher-functioning areas of their mind to live and work more consciously and with more joy and ease.



WISER leaders adopt a sage perspective so that no matter what the challenge, they can find a way or make a way through it. They are aware of their own worldview and how that shapes their behaviour. They experiment with different ways of framing an issue to generate new possibilities. They have an expanded perception and act out of that fuller perception for the good of people and planet.



WISER leaders take responsibility for managing their energy not just their time. They reduce energy drains and adopt renewing habits. They create norms and practices that unleash the energy of those around them. They can self-regulate their nervous system to be at their best more of the time.



WISER leaders see themselves as part of an interconnected web of relationships. They listen deeply, create connections and facilitate conversations that matter. They actively develop others, offer feedback and share appreciation. They use participatory approaches to harness the collective wisdom of others.


A Journey Worth Taking

Organisations that embed wiser ways of working can leverage many strategic strengths. For example, being ahead of the curve, getting to the root cause, being ready for contingencies, responding quickly to change, achieving high employee engagement through a motivated an energised workforce, attracting and retaining talent, continually innovating through cross-functional learning and collaboration, gaining strong stakeholder support and maintaining a reputation for quality and integrity (Watkins 2016). It takes a courageous leader to embark on the journey from smart to wise. But it’s not about having to be the next Nelson Mandela or Dalai Lama. Even small changes can create a ripple that affects positive change toward the major challenges in our world today. The more we talk about wisdom and make it our north star to guide us, the more we can play our part in a wider shift towards a new paradigm of how we live and work. And who knows, if we aim for the stars, we might just reach the moon.