Reflections On Yale’s Practical Wisdom For Management Conference

Last month I attended Yale’s conference on Practical Wisdom for Management . There were about 75 invited people in attendance from all over the world. Each of them either gave a talk or participated in a panel discussion and all emphasized the need for more managerial wisdom in organizations at all levels of industry and society. Topics in need of wisdom ran the gauntlet but especially focused on wisdom for geopolitical change and need for more focus on sustainability

What struck me the most as I sat and took this all in over two days was the absence of any real dialog on what practical wisdom in management is or looks like. What this reminded me of is the quote by Justice Potter Stewart that is considered to be the most famous phrase ever uttered in the history of the Supreme Court. In describing his threshold test for pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964) he basically said that, although he couldn’t define it, he knew it when he saw it. 

So seemed to be the case for wisdom at this conference. Every speaker alluded to or spoke of the need for wisdom but never specifically explored its essence. This is understandable, although it may seem strange at first glance, because there is no consensus on what are the key qualities or attributes of wisdom even though it has been viewed as essential for the direction of human affairs since before Aristotle as well as by most, if not all, of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions.

The one presentation that seemed closest to the mark was a talk by Andre Delbecq on leadership formation and wisdom, which at its heart requires a combination of worldly experience and spiritual transformation. The one talk that I believe would have been most on point was not given. The keynote speech by my good friend Prasad Kaipa, who recently published what to me is a groundbreaking book, From Smart to Wise: Acting and Leading with Wisdom, was cancelled because the conference was running late and one last panel needed to convene. Prasad spent 20 years studying as a Sanskrit scholar in his native India. He has a Ph.D. in Physics and was a Fellow at Apple where he was given a project to interview a number of Nobel Laureates.  He has also been on the faculty of the world recognized Indian School of Business and a sought after C-Suite advisor and coach for over 20 years. In short, if anyone knows something about practical wisdom in management it is him. Sadly, much of what might have been gained collectively at this conference concerning wisdom, management, and leadership was lost because he was not allowed to speak.

In his ground breaking book Prasad draws on the Bhagavad Gita, Aristotle, and other wisdom traditions to define wise leaders as those who understand how to act from a state of equanimity while being able to balance perspective, action, role clarity, decision logic, fortitude, and motivation.  Other definitions of wisdom I find relevant for our work that we recently offered to practitioners in Maximizing the Triple Bottom Line Through Spiritual Leadership come from Ram Dass in his book, Still Here: Embracing Aging Changing and Dying, and Riso and Hudson’s Wisdom of the Enneagram; The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types.

For Ram Dass wisdom involves emptying and quieting of the mind, the application of the heart, and the alchemy of reason and feeling. In the wisdom mode we’re not processing information, analytically or sequentially. We’re standing back and viewing the whole, discerning what matters and what does not, weighing the depth and meaning of things. He notes, as does Kaipa, that while smart people abound, this quality of wisdom is rare in our culture. We have plenty of people who pretend to be wise but who, unfortunately, have not cultivated the quality of mind or mindful awareness from which wisdom truly arises.

For Riso and Hudson central to wisdom is discernment, which requires the ability to see as things just as they are without judgment – a central aspect of mindful awareness – not as we wish it to be. It does not ignore right or wrong or deny that there are better or worse choices that a person might have made. Rather, wisdom looks at the choices that have been made, at the situation we find ourselves in now, and considers the best possible thing to do. Wisdom ultimately seeks what is true and necessary and for the best of all considered. And, it can only arise in the present moment and spring forth form an absence of preconceived values, opinions, and judgments. From this space, wisdom can show us a way out, even from the kind of hell we have created for ourselves through putting in place and trying to work for change through the current geopolitical system that supports and reinforces the failed economic philosophy focused on consumerism and corporations, whose main purpose is to maximize shareholder wealth today.

No, I heard none of this at Yale’s Practical Wisdom for Management conference. Nor did I hear a call for the spirituality necessary for such practice. Although I have not thought much about it before, I’ve begun to speculate about what role our extensive research on spiritual leadership could play in developing and reinforcing the wisdom that is necessary for the fundamental changes in management and leadership called for at this conference. Perhaps spiritual leadership, sourced through an inner life or mindful practice for cultivating mindful awareness, is the source of practical wisdom for management, This source of spiritual leadership intrinsically motivates hope/faith in a vision of service to key stakeholders through an organizational culture based on the values of altruistic love that, in combination, satisfy fundamental needs of both leaders and followers for purpose and belonging and, ultimately, maximizes the triple bottom line.

Perhaps this might be a way to develop the wisdom necessary to drive the fundamental transformation so passionately called for at this conference. Maybe it begins by recognizing that wisdom starts with mindful awareness and that it requires a spiritual transformation that leads us beyond egoistic gratifications. In doing so ones begins to awaken to the realization that joy, peace, and serenity provide life’s greatest reward and that these rewards can only be found through loving and serving others. Maybe through this recognition, together we can foster oneness of the human family which I believe, although unstated, was the true purpose of this conference. Einstein’s statement that problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them has never been truer. This means that the seemingly intractable problems that are preventing global transformation and union, peace, and sustainability cannot be solved at the geopolitical and national levels or through conferences like this. Perhaps though they can be solved through individuals, teams, and organizations seeking and applying wisdom as described above which, collectively, could generate the critical mass necessary for the chain reaction essential for co-creating a conscious, sustainable world that works for everyone.

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