Cultivating wisdom in organizations

Antonio Blanco-Gracia Practices Leave a Comment

Imagine that we have a nephew who confesses to us that he is confused about many things: What professional career to pursue? What lifestyle can he aspire to have? Is he willing to sacrifice love, or family life for a professional career? Is he willing, on the contrary, to sacrifice a professional opportunity for his relationship, or a transcendent purpose? Would he contribute to destroying the ozone layer in exchange for an extraordinary salary that would solve the enormous debt he(she has incurred by going to college in the U.S., or by buying a centrally located flat with his partner?

We live in a time obsessed with methodologies, and step-by-step lists to get results. Managers, coaches, mentors, consultants, and facilitators increasingly rely on methodologies that sell with the same rhetoric as the click-bait title of a Medium post, and we rely on the artificial intelligence that analyzes massive amounts of data that we have at our disposal for the first time. But there are no methodologies or algorithms to answer our nephew’s questions; no recipes, no methods, no procedures. Even the history of science fiction, since Jules Verne, is a reminder that this is never going to happen. There are certainly some techniques and knowledge that can help him, but fundamentally, to help our nephew in the best possible way we must turn to wisdom.

What does that imply? If we trust Aristotle, it implies, of course, that we have to be able to base our judgments on reasoning, observation and discrimination of facts that lead to logical conclusions. But it is no less important to include non-rational and subjective aspects of the human experience: to attend to our instincts, to the intuitions and teachings that are born from the experience accumulated by ourselves and our species, and that are gathered by our traditions. To be attentive to empathy with our nephew, to interpersonal emotions and to our spiritual experience if we have it. To the feelings and passions that lead us to take a position and act in one direction or the other. It also means paying attention to the joy produced by the aesthetic dimension of our existence, which cannot be separated from ethics: life itself as a work of art. All this, together with intellectual humility, prudence and pragmatism, so that our advice does not lead him to assume absurd or unnecessary risks. There is no methodology or training program in the world that can lead you, step by step, to the results of wisdom.

Overwhelming, isn’t it? Nobody has educated us to undertake the path of wisdom, not even told us that wisdom was something desirable, because our societies do not encourage it. On the contrary, it usually penalizes it, for its care for the other and its long-term vision as persons and as humanity. In fact, there is an enormous amount of academic literature showing how people with serious psychopathy and narcissism disorders are promoted rather than dismissed in large organizations.

Some situations in which wisdom is of little use are pretty clear. For example, in a ring. The weight, the technical training, the ability to concentrate in combat, are much more decisive than wisdom. You don’t have to be wise to be the best football player in the world. But you also don’t have to be wise to be the best CEO in the world. Let’s talk about management.

Our organizations look more like a ring, because our economic system looks more like a boxing tournament. The fundamental mindset is based on zero-sum: what we lose will be won by our competition. Companies compete, universities compete, NGOs compete and cities and countries compete. In addition, we must show short-term results in a world that we perceive to be accelerating. We value agility, strength, intelligence, because they help us pursue short-term results, without taking care of anyone other than our profit and loss account and our corporate responsibility report; or the short-term fulfillment of some point of our mandates as activists, politicians or public servants. There is only prize, and often survival, for the short term. Scholarship, if it exists, is memoristic and intended for the spectacle; to innocuously coat the technique, the methodology and the step-by-step. What Taleb calls an IYI (Intellectual Yet Idiot).

But things seem to be changing, because the short term model shows symptoms of saturation and severe ecological (natural disasters due to climate change) and social (social conflicts caused by the existence of huge inequalities) unsustainability. Liberal parliamentary democracies are in crisis, from the UK to Bolivia. Investors are willing to pay money to the Bundesbank to keep their money, in a context where deposits do not yield because capital is oversized. We may not be able to stop the system of self-destructive incentives that we have created; maybe we will. And if the latter happens, it will be because, collectively, we will return to the importance of wisdom.

In a world where wisdom is not considered essential, or is considered even annoying to achieve short-term results, at Pantheon Work we are very “fans” of customers and collaborators who value wisdom, and appreciate that we also value wisdom. I think there’s a mutual recognition that makes us want to keep working together. We like to allow time to think reflectively and collectively about past and present sources of wisdom. We will not always have the opportunity to talk to our clients about the management of technology made by the Amish, about those taught by the open source communities, about the role of imagination in science, about the current relevance of the Hindu Vedas, about the systemic thinking behind a mythological corpus, or about the ignored work of obscure French post-structuralist systemic philosophers. But they appreciate that we can share ideas and advice, taking into account all these things in terms of sources of wisdom. They value the fact that the methodologies we use were proposed by sages like Jean-Christian Fauvet, great reader of Edgar Morin, or Verna Allee, connoisseur of mythology and traditional Indian thought. They appreciate that in the weekly meetings we have with the Pantheon Work team we give important time to talk about these and other things, and about how they translate into our private, citizen and professional work.

There are wise people, and also wise teams; wisdom as an emergent result greater than the sum of individual knowledge and capabilities. I feel very privileged that, to the extent of our possibilities, those of the people and organizations with whom I work the most, we try to cultivate that wisdom, with what each of us knows and can.

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