Why Wisdom Is Essential for Management as a Liberal Art



William Cohen
08/01/2019

Editor’s Note

Years ago, The Great Books movement identified the most important books ever written. Reading books such as Moby Dick, Dr. Zhivago, Crime & Punishment, Antigone, Billy Budd, Hamlet and the like familiarized us with complex characters and how they solved complex moral dilemmas.

Reading the ideas of philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, and dozens more helped us to think more critically, that is, how to think versus what to think. A skill much-needed to manage in today’s rapidly arriving, disruptive future.

Peter F. Drucker observed many of today’s knowledge workers were highly trained, but not educated. Drucker believed management was a liberal art. That the practice of management and effective leadership depended, in large part, on the liberal arts.

This article is the first in a series that will expand on Drucker’s astute observation.

Introduction

MLA is an exciting new way of managing that emphasizes liberal arts and is superior to using numbers alone for profits and managerial decision-making.

MLA is based on Peter Drucker’s theory that management is a liberal art requiring four essential elements in execution—and has an emphasis on integrity and social responsibility and Henry Mintzberg’s separate research and courses at McGill University in Canada.

Drucker Institute Board members Minglo Shao, Bill Pollard and Bob Buford uncovered Drucker’s conclusions and funded further research. Drucker Professor Joseph Maciariello introduced, and teaches MLA over the internet. Today MLA is a respected concept taught at schools and practiced in corporations and other organizations internationally.

The four essential elements of MLA are Knowledge, Self-knowledge, Wisdom and Leadership. Wisdom is greatly valued by most cultures and considered essential. Unfortunately, it is perhaps the most difficult of the four elements to attain and measure. It is also probably the most elusive.

Highly Valued

Wisdom is a demonstration of expertise. Most cultures assign it very high, if not the highest, value of desirable attributes.

For example, there are 222 mentions of wisdom in the Holy Scriptures of Judaism (the part called “the Old Testament” in the Bible) and it's the foundation of Jewish scholarship and ethics.

Wisdom is assigned equally high value in other religions. Not only did Jesus embrace it, but the Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas called wisdom the basis of all human virtues. Similarly, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism agree with this assessment.

In the Koran, the learning of wisdom is not only noted, it's stated as a requirement of faith. In Buddhism, Buddha taught that to realize enlightenment, a person needs to develop only two qualities, one is wisdom and the other compassion.

From ancient Greece and Rome to Mesopotamia, too, the concept of wisdom’s importance is noted.

Wisdom Enables Management Decisions by Trained Intuition

According to Drucker, many successful management decisions are made from the gut. In other words, managers integrate the four essentials of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom and leadership almost without thinking and still arrive at a good decision, especially when little time is available and information is incomplete. I call this “trained intuition.”

Why Isn’t Wisdom Training Common?

If wisdom is so valued and given such high esteem by most cultures, why isn’t it a prime input to all management systems and training, and used in the selection of leaders?

One could say that it is, but is perceived only by observation verified by results. This, combined with the ability to make decisions rapidly when desired, is so powerful. Wisdom is frequently assumed to always be the result of either extensive experience or a gift received at birth.

We can discard this notion. How else can we explain the sometimes very foolish acts performed by the most intelligent of us when young, and the frequently used term of “immaturity” to excuse many acts and missteps of early behavior?

Immaturity has even been explained by scientists as due to time necessary for the human brain to develop. These may result in laws or policies requiring at what age to permit smoking, drinking alcoholic beverages, driving an automobile, etc.

Other Characteristics of Wisdom

Psychologists investigating wisdom have described wisdom as having to do with characteristics which include:

  • Problem solving—with knowledge and self-knowledge including an understanding of one's own emotions, moral beliefs and other factors in one’s background which bias one’s thinking
  • Appropriate behaviors or actions to the circumstances and situation with knowledge of the negative and positive aspects and constraints of potential actions along with knowledge of diversity in ethical opinions pertaining to each
  • Acceptance of uncertainty with both situational and decision variables

The Price of Acquisition

Assuming wisdom is not a gift at birth; to acquire wisdom in any field may demand a high price, requiring real experience associated with age, length of time of the experience and with a demonstration of performance required. The license to drive an automobile provides a familiar example. 

Recently I read an account written by Robert L. Scott, a fighter pilot who had shot down ten enemy airplanes plus nine probables while a member of the famous “Flying Tigers” American Volunteer Group in China early during WWII.

He said he had done this with little difficulty since he had more than 10,000 hours flying experience at the time, whereas his opponents had only a few hundred hours.

He was not the only pilot ace to observe the value of experience over other traits in this activity. Another ace, Chuck Yeager, who not only downed more than five enemy aircrafts, but was the first man in history to fly faster than the speed of sound wrote: “Experience will get you every time.” By the way, both men became Air Force generals.

You might argue whether their downing more than five enemy aircrafts made them “wise” or not, but they gained something from their experiences which gave them an advantage over their opponents afterwards and they demonstrated extraordinary wisdom in this area of human endeavor.

In Norse mythology, the god Odin was especially known for his wisdom, often acquired at the price of various hardships and ordeals involving pain and self-sacrifice.

He plucked out an eye and offered it in exchange for some desired wisdom in one instance. In another, he hanged himself repeatedly and wounded himself with a spear to gain certain knowledge. Fortunately, similar payments are not required to drive an automobile, run a business or even become an ace in aerial combat.

Acquiring Trained Intuition Without Paying Odin’s Price

Experience is still claimed the best teacher in many cases for either practicing MLA or in running a business or managing any organization. However, there are other ways which are less expensive, less time-consuming, less risky or just plain easier.

First, it's wise to remember that Drucker’s other essential elements of MLA are knowledge, self-knowledge and leadership as all three are feeders into wisdom and trained intuition.

Drucker is very specific about the knowledge areas in which experience is needed. Those he recommended were: Economics, Ethics, History, Humanities, Philosophy, Social Sciences, Physical Sciences and Psychology. Note that all are liberal arts.

Learning everything is impossible. So, the first rule is to get as much experience in everything that you can but recognize that in-depth experience in everything is impossible. Some have described this as attempting to learn more and more about less and less.

However, experience as a learning tool doesn’t end with a single performance. You may have a few instant successes, and probably many failures in the process. That’s not necessarily bad.

A friend of mine, Bill Bartmann, was my graduation speaker at CIAM, the graduate school of which I was president for five years. He was once listed by Forbes Magazine as one of the wealthiest men in America.

He told the graduating class that he hoped they would fail in the future, and not once, but many times. Moreover, he said that he hoped they “failed big." The bigger they failed, he said, the larger potential success they could have in the future because of the lessons learned.

What You Must Do After Every Experience

If you just have experiences and let it go at that, you may gain some benefit. But for maximum results, you must take two other actions.

  1. Analyze every experience for lessons learned. What did you do right and what did you do wrong? What would you do differently in the future?
  2. Take action and apply these lessons to situations you encounter in the future. Knowledge without action is meaningless.

Alternatives to Experience for Gaining Wisdom

There are alternatives to real experience for gaining wisdom through experience that don't risk some of the normal penalties for failure or costs. These include:

  • Tasks you perform for someone with reduced penalty for failure such as done as an acknowledged student for which you don’t charge
  • Experiential learning exercises which require using and mastering the same skills you would learn in real experience
  • Learning through the experiences of others by extensive reading, listening of audio programs, speeches and webinars
  • Mental and psychological techniques

These alternatives will be covered in future articles.

Drucker stated only four essentials as he defined MLA. One of these, Wisdom, may be the most important requiring input from the other three essentials: Knowledge, Self-Knowledge, and Leadership.

Moreover, unlike focusing on single analytical goals such as profit or even productivity, they must be applied with integrity and incorporated with social purpose. Don’t leave Wisdom to chance, it's essential!

 

READ NEXT: How to Gain Real Wisdom, Without Real Experience


*Adapted and syndicated from a forthcoming book by Francisco Suarez and William Cohen, Peter Drucker's Most Important New Reality: MLA Methodology and Its Practice

Other Sources

  • Consulting Drucker: Principles and Lessons by William A. Cohen (LID, 2018)
  • Drucker’s Lost Art of Management by Joe Maciariello (McGraw-Hill, 2011)
  • Peter Drucker’s Way to the Top by William A. Cohen (LID, 2019)
  • The Soul of the Firm by C. William Pollard (Delta One, 2009)
  • Managers not MBAs by Henry Mintzberg (BK, 2004, 2005)

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