Why practical wisdom is the ultimate leadership trait

Why practical wisdom is the ultimate leadership trait

While reading the latest edition of Company Director I came across a new phrase – practical wisdom. When organisations want to improve performance, management typically chooses one of two tools. One is to introduce new procedures and processes that tell employees what to do and monitor their performance to make sure they are doing it. The other is to introduce incentives that encourage good performance by rewarding people. Rules and incentives. Sticks and carrots. What else is there?

Aristotle said this two-pronged approach was lacking a missing ingredient that he called phronesis, or practical wisdom.  Without this missing ingredient, neither rules (no matter how detailed and well monitored) nor incentives (no matter how clever) will be enough to solve the problems we face.

Most people familiar with New Age phrases such ‘the way’, ‘the secret’ or ‘the path’ perceive wisdom as the opposite of practical. Wisdom is about abstract, ethereal matters and it is the province of self-appointed gurus. Aristotle’s teacher Plato shared this view that wisdom was theoretical and abstract, and the gift of only a few sages.

But Aristotle disagreed. Ethics, he said, was not mainly about establishing moral rules and following them. Instead he said ethics is the need to learn to succeed in life and flourish as human beings. Aristotle said what we needed to learn were certain character traits like loyalty, self-control, courage, fairness, generosity, gentleness, friendliness and truthfulness.  It is a typical leadership list. But above all Aristotle said that the master trait leaders needed was practical wisdom. None of these other traits could be exercised well without it.

Aristotle said the big problems we face are not puzzling over a choice between right and wrong. The truly difficult decisions are when you face choices among right things that clash.  Practical wisdom combines the will to do the right thing with the skill to figure out what the right thing is. It is combination of using emotion and logic, i.e. emotional intelligence.

However, I have now come to the conclusion that most followers of emotional intelligence also lack a key ingredient. For example the originators of emotional intelligence Salovey and Mayer define EQ as follows:

  1. The ability to read people by identifying their emotions.
  2. The ability to use emotions to get other people to work in harmony with you.
  3. The ability to understand emotions and so predict the emotional future.
  4. The ability to manage emotions and ensure that we use the available emotional information when making decisions, which to me is a roundabout way of using intuition.

The problem with this model is that it says it is the transient emotions that are important. I disagree. I believe that what is essential in lifting your emotional intelligence is an understanding of temperament, which is that part of the personality that is genetically based and is what determines our habitual emotional response.

Mayer and Salovey do refer in passing to some people having typical ways of looking at the world and call these dispositional traits. I would argue the opposite and say all of us have core dispositional traits and that it is a mixture of these traits with some being dominant and others weak that make us all unique.

The model that I have found best at explaining temperament is the Humm-Wadsworth Temperament Scale. This model says we are all slightly insane and, as I get older, I am more and more relaxed about this hypothesis. The model also says we have seven core emotional drives: six based on the most common forms of insanity and a seventh that tries to bring logic and order into our personality.


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