Leadership: Wisdom Lies Beyond Head Knowledge


There is a great difference between knowing and understanding; you can know a lot about something and not really understand it.

Charles F Kettering

Deep or wide?

Two events come to mind.

First, a number of years ago, I listened to a presentation on wisdom. The speaker contrasted the definitions of wisdom used by ancient Greeks and ancient Romans. The ancient Greeks perceived wisdom as the accumulation of knowledge. They focused on learning new concepts and gaining new knowledge. A person was considered wise if he/she could present information in a new and interesting way. Creating exciting models with new insights that titillated the intellect were highly valued. (Does this sound like today’s training and consulting world to anyone?) Adding layer after layer of new knowledge is akin to laying layers of veneer. The effort is broad but shallow. The ancient Romans, on the other hand, believed wisdom was found in a person’s ability to apply what they knew to be true. Truth and knowledge were to be learned but the ability to use those concepts skillfully by applying them to unique situations was where real value lay. The Romans’ approach was to focus vertically, applying what they knew to be true.

Second, I was working on a complexity reduction project in a plant several years ago. A veteran line worker asked me if I knew the difference between a manager and an engineer. Before I could respond he told me the answer.

  • An engineer keeps learning more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.
  • A manager keeps learning less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything.

These two situations highlight one of the basic problems we are currently experiencing in developing leadership talent.

Knowledge is not the problem
Leadership is an art (which must be applied to produce value), not a science. It is based on sound principles; but the issue is application, not knowledge of those principles. As Peter Bregman writes, “I have never seen a leader fail because he or she did not know enough about leadership. In fact, I can’t remember ever meeting a leader who didn’t know enough about leadership.” (HBR blog “Why So Many Leadership Programs Ultimately Fail”) Most participants who attend leadership training have sufficient knowledge to be good, even great, managers. That knowledge has been gained from experience, common sense, policy, observing and maybe even some previous training. What is missing in the majority of “run of the mill” leaders is the characteristic great leaders develop: the ability to skillfully and consistently apply leadership principles and concepts to different or unique situations.

Most don’t even try
There are two reasons leaders don’t try to develop the skill of applying what they know to be true. First, knowledge acquisition is relatively easy, application is hard. While most leadership gurus will deny it, they are much better at telling than teaching how to apply. Knowledge acquisition by itself provides the appearance of wisdom because it provides facts and terms that can be tossed around when issues arise. Turning a clever phrase (wrong people on the bus, or 40 mile march) around a difficult situation makes an individual appear wise but seldom produces lasting results (and often can create damage). It also negatively impacts employees’ morale because they hear their leaders saying the right words but they do not see skillful action implementing those words. Conversely, the problem with application is it is hard work. Facing a situation and thinking through an issue is difficult. It is even more difficult when a solution requires a leader to ask himself or herself, “What should I do in this situation to apply the principles which I know are true?”

The second reason leaders do not try to apply is tunnel vision. There are many leaders who learn a concept but can only visualize the use of it in one specific situation. When a slightly different situation arises, they either do not recognize the need or they do not know how to apply what they have learned slightly differently to address the situation.

One result of poor application: great leadership concepts become fads
One devastating result of a thirst for knowledge over application is that sound management concepts become fads. Concepts are learned, tried for a while and then discarded for one of two reasons:

  1. The leader tried it but it did not work (application); or
  2. It becomes old, out of date (not current research or knowledge) and leaders are now bored with it.

As a result, concepts that could have produced significant results for an organization, if skillfully applied over a significant period of time, are discarded. Over time this begins to immunize a leader or organization into thinking that all leadership concepts are academic and nothing really works in the “real” world. It also keeps them from considering true solutions to their problems because they have “already done that.”

The example of employee engagement
This is happening now in employee engagement which is an important tool of a great leader. Engaging people in the work builds commitment, ownership and high-value solutions. Engagement should produce significant results for an organization but it is being squandered.

In one company senior leaders and I met to discuss the concept of employee engagement. “Oh, we do that and our employees are engaged. Engagement is built into our management philosophy and practices. We involve our people.” There could not have been a more glowing endorsement of the importance and value of employee engagement.

Then I visited with staff throughout the organization. When we discussed engagement, their comments were very different. “Management does not include us. We are never involved. They do not care what we think”. When I challenged the employees using the senior leadership team’s examples, the misapplication of engagement became clear. “Oh yes, they do ask our opinions”, the employees responded. “But we are called together to decide if we want buffalo brown or baby blue coffee cups in the cafeteria. When there is a significant decision which affects us and our work, a meeting is held behind closed doors after which a decision is announced. So we are involved, just not in decisions that matter or impact us!”

Employee engagement will soon be discarded in this organization (and in many others like it). Leadership will become frustrated that employees did not appreciate the opportunity to be involved. Employees will be frustrated over what they see as management hypocrisy. Another sound leadership concept will be thrown on the trash heap of management fads as a novel idea that did not work out in the real world. The problem is not knowledge but the failure to properly apply the concept.

Will the problem get worse?
Today organizations are concerned about lack of talent and the drying of the leadership pipeline. Consider:

  • 45 % of students made no gains improvement in writing, complex reasoning or critical thinking during their first two years of college
  • 36 % failed to show any improvement after four years. (Richard Arum in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses)
  • Problem solving, decision-making, collaboration and the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively are the top four most significant missing workplace skills in today’s college graduates. (The Global Strategy Group Study in Fortune magazine)

Why is this troubling? These thinking skills are foundational to the ability to apply.
The result?

  • 47% of executives now believe that only 1/5th of new grads have the skills they’ll need to advance past entry-level jobs, much less be prepared to assume a formal leadership position. (The Global Strategy Group Study in Fortune magazine)

As one looks to the future, chances for improvement are bleak unless major changes are made.

What is a leader to do?

A. Change yourself

  1. Consider your leadership behavior. Take inventory of your actions that do not live up to the leadership phrases you espouse. Get a trusted advisor or mentor who can provide unvarnished feedback about your ability to apply basic leadership principles.

B. Change others

  1. First and foremost, quit relying on leadership training classes to develop future talent. Recognize that grooming the next generation of leadership talent will not occur in a classroom. Building leadership talent will occur at the knee of a mentor, not in a “butts in seats” classroom.
  2. Every great leader should be actively mentoring young potential. Begin to make a difference yourself by developing future leaders one by one.
  3. Inculcate in your protégées that there is no “magic leadership bullet”. Stress the hard work required to effectively lead.
  4. Throw young leaders into situations where they can learn but stay close! Mark Twain said, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”
  5. Go deeper, not wider. Stick with fundamentals but build a deep capability to apply those fundamentals. Doing one thing well is better than doing fifty things superficially.
  6. Do not tell young leadership talent what to do. Make them think. Build capability by asking them one or more of the following questions
    1. What is the issue?
    2. What objectives are you trying to accomplish?
    3. What alternatives do you have?
    4. Which alternative performs best against those objectives?
    5. What risks are associated with that alternative?
    6. Can you manage those risks?
    7.  How would you implement your decision?
  7. Coach around each of those above questions after your protégée has answered. This is where the leader’s knowledge, expertise and insight are added. Remember, Rome was not built in a day and neither are leaders – keep building, one lesson at a time.
  8. Seek to broaden young leaders’ horizons by discussing and evaluating different ways to apply their knowledge.
  9. 10. Repeat steps 1-5 for several years and then look carefully; you may have developed a young leader!

Copyright 2014 9 By 9 Solutions All Rights Reserved

Want to talk about leadership and management? Doug mentors and develops leaders (millennials to geezers) and he would love to talk with you. [email protected]

1 comment

  1. Doug, your questions are excellent in leadership talent development implications. These are really valuable questions to provide talent’s thinking on the issue to learn, understand and take action on them.  

    Leadership should create passion, engagement and commitment. It is clear that it is not easy. I know that this will be an issue in business over the next few years. This is “the thing” we have to worry about it.  

    Your example of employee engagement is really great. According to Gallup research, the only 13% of employees around the world are actively engaged at work in business organizations.

    We are living in a hypercompetitive business world. Operational excellence and organizational agility are being crucial for success. All of these are related to the leadership capabilities. Therefore leadership should benchmark his/her management style and hire a strong experienced mentor or consultant to develop and implement organizational alignment and productivity, ethical innovation, superior talent management and employee engagement.

    I know that this will create growth and profitability for companies.  

    Doug, thank you so much sharing such valuable experience and knowledge. It is a competitive value!

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