Wise Leadership

What’s Wisdom got to do with it? . . .

Recently, I had the opportunity to look at organizational leadership from a different perspective. I had the pleasure and privilege to lead a workshop on governance for the board directors in the public education sector in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It’s a ‘tough’ job but someone has to do it!

The mandate required me to examine and present leading edge and best practices to an august group, many of whom were already at the top of their profession, who were now facing the daunting challenge of guiding their respective organizations into a volatile future. I sensed the need to make a clear differentiation between managing an organization and governing it since the majority of those participating were comfortably adept at the former while being relatively inexperienced at the latter.

Governance - providing oversight and direction - and management both involve leadership, but it isn’t the same. Management tends to be a convergent activity which focuses effort and resources to accomplish recognizable goals and standards. Governance is much more divergent, taking the enterprise forward into the unknowable future by setting effective strategic direction and by ensuring responsible risk management.

There are three essential differentiators where successful governance will distinguish itself relative to ongoing management practice. These include the ascendancy of wisdom over knowledge, a focus on the engagement of organizational (and individual) strengths, and a solutions / outcomes emphasis. Let’s look at each of these but particularly at the first.

A Personal Story . . .

It was the summer of my sixteenth year and I was attending boarding school. I’d had bronchitis that spring and wasn’t yet fully recovered. My sainted Scottish aunt had lost her husband, my uncle, the previous October and was still in a state of grief. So, my parents, in their wisdom, decided that I should spend the summer holidays with her at our ancestral home on the shores of Loch Dhu, near Inverness in the highlands of Scotland.

If you’re familiar with summer in the Scottish Highlands you’ll know that it rains, and this was the situation upon my arrival – and solidly for the next three days. There was little for me to do other than to explore the house. It’s a large and complex structure which has had innumerable additions and extensions over hundreds of years and so it’s crammed with nooks and crannies.

In my explorations I came across a package which had been sent to my uncle from a London department store the previous summer. Unfortunately, he’d become sick and died before he had opened it. With my aunt’s consent, I opened it and found a beautiful, state-of-the-art fishing rod complete with instruction manual.

Now, I knew very little about fishing then, and I don’t know much more now, but possessing the mind typical of fifteen year-olds, I absorbed everything in that instruction manual about the remarkable features of the rod, the fishing strategies where it would guarantee my fishing success and even something about the type of fish I could confidently expect to catch.

On the first fine day, promising my aunt that I’d be home with lunch, I was at the loch side, had assembled the rod and was practicing my casting. I wasn’t doing too badly, getting the hook into the water at least two times out of every five attempts, when suddenly I noticed a ‘presence’ at my elbow.

He was as old as the hills with a shock of snowy white hair, bushy eyebrows to match over piercing blue eyes, a hooked nose and chin that almost met and a thin lipless mouth. He said, "That’s an aw’fu’ fine rod ye’ve got there!”
Well, that was all the invitation I needed.

I immediately regurgitated everything I’d learned from the instruction manual – the composite material in the rod itself, the triple-plated stainless steel guide rings, the state-of-the-art reel, everything! From time to time he’d interject with "Och aye, is tha’ a fact!’ I later learned that this was highland speak for ‘BS’. Undaunted at the time, I continued to make my casts and he disappeared.

About twenty minutes later he reappeared. In his hands was a spectacular, eighteen inch lake trout – a good four pounder. He laid it gently on the creel or fishing basket and said, "Would this be what’ ye’re looking fer?’

My jaw dropped. I asked, "How did you do that? You don’t have a rod or even a net that I can see?” I later discovered how he’d done it and I’ll share that with you, but meanwhile he’d presented me with a dilemma – do I say nothing and let my aunt believe that I’d caught the fish, or do I confess and appear to be an idiot?

I’m still agonizing over the decision as I enter the summer kitchen where my aunt was preparing vegetables. She looks at the fish, she doesn’t even look at me, and she says "Oh, so ye’ve met Jamie, have you?’

Jamie was the estate ghillie or grounds man and he later explained how he’d caught the fish – by ‘tickling trout’. He went one step better and taught me how to do it.

When it has rained heavily, sediment is stirred up in the loch. Trout will find a shady place in the shallows, under the lee of the bank and out of direct sunlight where they can just sit and feed from the drifting waters. If you know where to find them, you can insert your hand very gently behind the fish and when it approximates water temperature, you slide it up under the fish’s belly, hooking your fingers at the pivotal moment, pulling it out of the water onto the bank. I know this works because I actually did it – just once!

Jamie taught me to tickle trout, but he taught me something even more valuable. He taught me the difference between knowledge and wisdom. I knew all there was to know about that fishing rod and I would have starved to death. Jamie knew nothing about the rod, but he did know fish!

What does this mean? . . .

A profound knowledge of strategy and technique (the rod) without a sensitive awareness of your target market with its intentions and realities (the fish) will get you nowhere. We can be knowledgeable and skilled, as unquestionably Jamie was, but above all we need to be wise in the ways of our business.

It is wisdom - a level of situational awareness and insightfulness - that allows us to understand what is possible and why. With such awareness and insight we will be able to set appropriate objectives and standards and not concern ourselves so much with the ‘hows’. I recall well that Jamie and I would take three to five day trips into the mountains carrying no shelter or provisions, knowing that we would be living off the land – and I never fared so well in my life.

Wisdom means living parallel with the natural order of things, in harmony with the unfolding future and being able to predict with substantial accuracy what is bound to emerge. It means being able to work from the future back to the present rather than being limited to working forward from the present into an unknown and unknowable future.

Governance must provide awareness and insight if it is to give direction and oversight. The management team can get by on straight-forward knowledge, skills and experience since it is primarily concerned with implementation and execution. Clearly though, both governance and management should collaborate to build consensus on the substance of the business and in this process the board will learn about management realities and management could acquire some wisdom.

An integral part of wisdom is the intelligent and responsible use of assets, the definition of outcomes and the welfare and well being of all involved. This will support the other two core ideas of strengths engagement and outcome focus, but both of these are fully and rightfully shared by the board and management. Wisdom though is a hard-earned commodity and a unique gift that directors are in a position to bestow upon the organization.

Strengths and Outcomes? . . .

If we can accept that there is an implicit natural order, wisdom greater than ourselves, we’re able to free ourselves from vain attempts to reinvent or to impose control over things that will generally defy our will. Our values-in-action - those ideas that we own, cherish and seek to perpetuate - become our passions in action as well as our guidelines for a satisfying life.

When values-in-action are assembled in convenient packages to deal with life’s experiences, we demonstrate our inherent strengths. They will rarely fail us since they are time tested and true to who we are. When we act contrary to these guidelines and desires we betray not only others, but our selves as well. "First to our own selves, be true!”

We all need to act with integrity and to be authentic and when we are offering leadership this is imperative. Directors of boards, acting in the governance role, are offering leadership to many and across broad areas of action. It follows then that such leadership must be particularly focused and clearly expressed and also that its intent should be as transparent as possible.

To contribute in coherent, consensual ways, specifically focused on explicit outcomes and objective standards, is the prime directive for board directors. Firstly, the task is to focus the desire for change that’s resident in others - the stakeholders – and then to offer direction, through defining outcomes and to assess related strategies and risks, and to facilitate the creation, through staff, of sustainable new realities to fulfill those desires.

Along the way, the board acts in concert to conserve and safeguard the assets of the organization and this is best achieved by setting appropriate and responsible goals and policies as well as by harnessing the inherent strengths of every stakeholder. Ultimately, we seek to unfold the desired future in ways that make optimal use of the resources available for the greater good of all.

The Bottom Line . . .

Leadership is a critically important board responsibility; together with oversight it is the ethical and legal mandate entrusted in every board of directors. More than most other expressions, this leadership has to be based in wisdom, a dimensional shift in the perspectives (the way we look at things) and perceptions (the values we attach to what it is that we see). We need to be independent of management, not an extension thereof, and this is the significant way to achieve this; we also need to collaborate with management in order to add substantial value.

Managers will always be focused primarily on the present – what is happening now and why. They tend to drive the organization with a great deal of attention to the rear-view mirror – past performance and metrics - as well as to the immediate future through the windshield.

Boards must concern themselves with the longer-term future, the destination and why we’re making the journey in the first place, together with the consequences of arriving or not arriving there and the impact the journey has for all concerned. The focus of the board has to be broad and also way down the road!

Leadership for all is a venture into the unknown and so it is complex beyond the wisdom of any particular individual. The board is best advised to ‘pool’ its wisdom so to discover the right direction and oversight. This is why those who are entrusted with the responsibility are very special people – wise beyond the norm.

Think about it!