The 8 Qualities of a Wise Leader.

December 14, 2022

The 8 Qualities of a Wise Leader.

May 29, 2023

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what qualities define a wise leader in the 21st century. Before I share my list, let’s define some terms. I believe wisdom is “metabolized experience that leads to distilled compassion.” It’s not just learning from your mistakes; it’s assuring your mistakes (which lead to your wisdom) serve a social good.

Management theorist Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” in 1959 when virtually no one understood the future value of computers and data technology. He suggested knowledge work was mostly about problem-solving and critical thinking. He believed knowledge workers were smart, tech-savvy, truth-seekers, and focused on the short-term and long-term. Of course, today, knowledge workers rule the world, and seven of the ten most valuable companies are tech companies.

But, at a time when we're awash in knowledge, where is the wisdom the world so desperately needs? We accumulate knowledge, yet we distill wisdom. So, a “wisdom worker” understands the secret from The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” A wisdom worker can see beyond the knowledge and the numbers to understand what is essential.

So, what are the eight qualities of a wisdom worker?

1. Pattern Recognition. In middle age, the brain shrinks a little, so memory and speed can decline. But the ability to connect the dots, to synthesize and get the gist of something, grows into late adulthood. Part of this is because an older brain can traverse from left to right more adeptly. A wise leader has an “all-wheel drive” brain, which helps us see the whole instead of just the various parts. It also means we have a peripheral vision to see the long-term consequences of short-term decisions more effectively. This is also known as crystallized intelligence.

2. Unvarnished Insight. One of the chief assets gained by experience is a clearness of view, an intuitive insight. A wisdom worker can cut through the clutter quickly to find the core issue that needs attention, whether in a job interview or a strategic discussion. And, because many wise leaders have ceased to try and impress or prove themselves, there’s a certain unvarnished yet polished authenticity to these observations.

3. Emotional Resonance. "Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens." And that listening doesn't just refer to the person in front of you. Authentic listening begins by listening to yourself as well as to the energy in a room. When it comes to how generations think (and listen), it's almost like an old-fashioned radio. Metaphorically and literally, young people resonate with the frequency at one part of the radio dial. Then, as you age, you can more easily tune into other frequencies on the dial. A wise leader has the empathic capacity to tune into virtually any frequency on the dial, moving back and forth with ease.

4. Psychological Safety. Google's Project Aristotle research proved that the most consistent variable amongst effective teams was how psychologically safe the team members felt. This safety is fostered by creating a more mindful, less emotionally-reactive habitat. A wise leader is compassionate and can move beyond their personal needs to see what's valuable for the group. The smartest person in the room is often stroking their own ego. The wisest person in the room is stoking curiosity and building trust.

5. Alchemical Capacity. Wise leaders experience comfort in ambiguity and are chemists of juxtapositions. They can synthesize seemingly opposite qualities in themselves. Curiosity and wisdom. Yin and yang. Gravitas and levity. Extrovert and introvert. Secular and spiritual. Doing and being. Logic and lyricism. Left brain and right brain. Mentor and intern. The wise leader transmutes these juxtaposed ingredients, especially when most people have become fixated on singular ingredients. It's time for less "either/or" and more "both/and" thinking.

6. Long Life Learner. While lifelong learning is important, accumulating knowledge isn't the same as distilling wisdom. “Long-life learning" isn't about certificates and tool kits. It's about shifting one's mindset about aging so that one can live a life as deep as it is long. Lifelong learning teaches you the ingredients of a recipe you could pick up from a YouTube video. Long-life learning is a collective cooking class full of joy and discovery. In the context of work, this means a wise leader's curiosity toward long-term learning serves as a role model to everyone around them.

7. Societal Oneness. Wise leaders have generational empathy and see all of nature as kin. They're less focused on attaining and more on attuning. The older you are, the more you recognize your small place on the planet. And the more you want to put your lifetime of experience and perspective to work to positively impact future generations. This is what "generativity" is all about.

8. Personal Wholeness. The path of purposeful living is, ultimately, a spiritual journey. From birth onward, we are all getting older. But we are, hopefully, also growing whole – maturing spiritually. A wise leader is liberated from the treadmill of personal ambition and sees life as one continual curriculum for becoming more conscious. And, in becoming more conscious, we become more integrated with ourselves and everyone and everything around us. This is part of the reason psychologist Carl Jung and Christian mystic Richard Rohr have suggested that our primary operating system changes in midlife from the ego to the soul.

Knowledge has become a commodity. All of the world's information can now rest in our hands. Of course, while we're awash in knowledge, we could use more wisdom. Whereas a knowledge worker tends to use an analytical mind, a wisdom worker likely thinks holistically and systemically, utilizing more creativity and emotional intelligence. Wisdom workers are more likely to be guided by their intuitive pattern recognition, something artificial intelligence has yet to replicate. The ironic truth is: knowledge workers' jobs are more at risk due to the ongoing march of technology in the workplace. On the other hand, it's hard to replace the nuanced insight of a wisdom worker.

MEA is dedicated to minting more "wisdom workers." If you find this interesting, you might enjoy our upcoming MEA Baja workshop, "The Emergence of the Wise Leader," that I'm co-leading with Wisdom 2.0 founder Soren Gordhamer from January 30 - February 4.

Go deeper with a workshop, in person or online.

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