4 Elements of Wise Leadership

Who still wants to have a leadership role in a large organization in these complex times? The role of leaders seems quite challenging. To begin with, organizations themselves are often extremely complex. As a leader within organizations, you are faced with all kinds of problems, differences of opinion and diverse interests. As a leader, how can you ever have the information, knowledge and skills to bridge these contradictions and to find solutions to these problems? In addition to that, consider the environments in which organizations have to operate. These are also characterized by enormous complexity, change and uncertainty. As a leader in all this turbulence, how can you ever know for sure which way the organization should go? Doesn't being a leader require almost superhuman energy, capabilities, and social skills? 

4 Elements of Wise Leadership 

The simple answer to the question above is that no one has such superhuman energy, abilities and social skills. It is an illusion to think that leaders can oversee everything, know everything, foresee everything and always be right. Leaders cannot make perfect analyzes and set perfect goals. But then what is a key to effective leadership? A more realistic answer to these questions is offered by a fairly new topic of research in psychology: the psychology of wisdom (see, among others, Grossmann & Brienza, 2018). Within this approach, wisdom is defined by the following four aspects

  1. Intellectual humility: wise leaders understand and accept the fact that their own knowledge and skills are permanently limited. This means that they realize that there is much that you do not know and that what you think is not necessarily correct. Intellectually humble leaders listen carefully, collect information, check whether they have understood things correctly and whether they have perhaps not overlooked things. They are careful in forming their opinion. 
  2. Recognizing and recognizing uncertainty and change: wise leaders realize that there is a lot of uncertainty and change. They think in terms of different solutions and scenarios and are willing to adjust their approach if the changing situation requires it. 
  3. Attention to the perspective of others: wise leaders are open to different ways of thinking. They try their best to understand the perspective of others. Others are given an opportunity to voice their concerns and problems and also to say what they are advocating for. 
  4. Focus on integrating different perspectives and reaching compromises: wise leaders strive to bridge different perspectives. They do this by looking for commonality in perspectives and interests and by looking for solutions that do justice to the perspectives and interests as much as possible. 

Benefits of Wise Leadership 

Such an interpretation of a leadership role has advantages on several fronts. 

  • First of all, it has benefits for leaders themselves. By thinking in this way they do not expect the impossible from themselves. 
  • Also leaders cannot be superhumans, and by using the elements of wise leadership they don't have to be either. This prevents them from taking too much of a load on their shoulders. 
  • Furthermore, this interpretation of leadership has advantages for employees. Wise leaders are not pedantic or superior, but approachable, modest and equal. As an employee you feel that you are taken seriously by wise leaders, which stimulates and inspires you. 
  • Wise leadership also benefits the organization as a whole. By taking multiple perspectives, interests and scenarios seriously, the chance that the organization will achieve sustainable success increases. 
  • Furthermore, wise leaders have a lot of beneficial influence on the values, attitudes and behavior of others in the organization. Leaders are highly visible and what they do often models the attitudes and behavior of others. 

Teaching this skill

We should not all be looking for those exceptional individuals who embody these four hallmarks of wise leadership. Wisdom does not appear to be a stable personality characteristic. There are no people who always act wisely. The degree to which we act wisely appears to differ from situation to situation for almost everyone. A second reason for not putting the primary focus on finding wise leaders is that wise leadership is a skill to be learned. So we'd better focus on teaching this skill. It is hoped that people in formal leadership positions will do this. And the higher the leadership position, the greater the expected benefits will be. But also people in informal leadership roles (and we are from time to all) can be inspired by these 4 elements. 


In your role, how can you contribute (however small) to the step by step increase of wise leadership in your environment?