Cultivating Wisdom in Fast Times

OK, so in an earlier post I talked about going slow to go fast.

While it is important to take the time to reflect and take stock of events, there is more to making good decisions than just slowing down and smelling the roses.


What we are really looking for is the ability to be more effective in our approach to challenges. Or we could talk about increasing our ability to respond wisely... maybe that’s why we give our most risky decisions to responsible (response-able) people.

And those who cultivate wisdom will be the masters of the stars, it has been said:

"He, over all the stars doth rein, That unto wisdom can attain." 

Wisdom: according to Websters, is defined as “accumulated philosophic or scientific learning, knowledge, the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships, insight, good sense”


So how do you know when someone is wise and responsible in this way? I have been thinking about this question, in life and in business, and have hit on a few components for your consideration:


1) Appropriate Cognitive Complexity for the Role

Here we refer to the ability to handle more variables, on more dimensions, and view them over a longer time horizon. The work of leadership theorist Elliot Jacques was based in large part on this insight:


People can only be expected to be responsible to the extent that the complexity of their thinking matches the demands of the tasks or the role.

His Stratified Systems Theory sets out the conditions based on the match of people to role to create a Requisite Organization (also the title of his seminal book).


Now, complexity of thinking and mental models are necessary for responsibility or wisdom, but not sufficient – an evil mastermind might be advanced in complexity, but we would not consider him or her wise. So we need some more attributes.


2) The Ability to Acknowledge Ignorance


Another key to wisdom is knowing that you don’t know, or rather, knowing that you can’t possibly know enough by yourself. In these hyperlinked, always-on times you can access more data faster than ever, but data is also being created and disseminated faster than you could ever take it in… like drinking from the proverbial fire hose.


Following from this, therefore, is the ability and practice of accessing data, information and knowledge from other people. Which points indirectly to…


3) The Ability to Acknowledge and Transcend Self-Aggrandizement and Hubris


The ability to take a back seat, share or cede the spotlight, and not need to take the credit for success is cited again and again in stories of transformative leaders. Research on adults and leaders points to the maturation process as a key factor here, suggesting that the likelihood of being more participative increases at and after age 40.


Another line of research has focused on maturity of psychological defense mechanisms – people who use humor, altruism, and who channel their distress into play or art – tend to cultivate more realistic and balanced responses to stress, and more balanced assessments of situations.


4) The Intention to Create the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number.


This is the ‘secret sauce’ of wisdom in my opinion: an abiding interest in the well-being of the broader community – for example: “7th Generation” thinking, or sensitivity to multiple stakeholders, the environment and long term impacts of decisions.


So – I put it to you, gentle reader: Do these make sense to you as a good starting list for developing wisdom in these fast times of ours?


  1. Complex thinking
  2. Knowing that there is so much you don’t know
  3. Cultivating humility
  4. Striving to support others


What might be missing, in your experience and opinion?

What are some ways you help yourself be more wise? (I'll share my thoughts on this in a later post, of course)

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