Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 18 May 2014

Leadership’s lack of wisdom

We accuse leaders of lacking wisdom and making foolish ill-advised decisions. We long for wise leadership and the confidence to believe in leaders who have stature and substance and wisdom. We want to respect our leaders. But surveying present South African leadership, they seem to get along quite well and even be re-elected without being bothered too much about wisdom.

The question has to be asked: Is wisdom really necessary and is it all it’s cracked up to be; an essential ingredient for leadership? If wisdom is maturity and sound judgement and balanced perspective, is all that really necessary for strong and powerful leadership? Looking at the leaders around us, would drive and passion and vision not outweigh wisdom when tacking stock of a leader?

Good leaders know how to mobilise people. They know where they want to go and how to get there. But the history of great leaders is full of examples of poor decisions made with the best intentions by those who pursued their goals but lacked wisdom. Yet they survived as leaders and often went on to bigger things.

Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy, Mahatma Ghandi, Margaret Thatcher, Mao Tse Tung and many other highly regarded political leaders including even Madiba made decisions at times that showed a regrettable lack of wisdom. Thabo Mbeki is thought to be clever, but does his track record show that he had wisdom? Is Barack Obama wise and was twice elected George W Bush at all wise? Bill Clinton was said to be very clever, but was he wise? They all were rated leaders. We are not talking about intelligence or cognitive capacity. Wisdom is something else and is closer to maturity and a depth of understanding that we associate with someone who is mature and well-adjusted and probably older.

Famous revolutionary leaders who started new movements and turned around established structures like Che Guevara or Fidel Castro or Lenin or Michael Collins in Ireland generated excitement for their cause and had the drive to take people to a new place. But were they necessarily wise?

In business Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Bill Gates and many more have acknowledged that they made poor, ill-informed and sometimes unwise business mistakes.

At a CNBC Power Lunch hosted by Alec Hogg last week the discussion was about leadership and what it is that makes a good leader. I suggested that Julius Malema is an excellent leader because he meets all the criteria usually required of leaders. He has a very clear vision, he has established a visible and immediately recognisable brand and he definitely has a significant, expanding following.

Alec Hogg, disagreeing strongly, challenged with the question, “But is he wise?” and then he asked, “Where would the country be if Malema had to run it?” At the same studio discussion were Stephen Koseff of Investec and Herman Mashaba, famous for “Black like Me” and the chairman of Leswikeng Minerals. They both agreed with Hogg and were clearly not approving of the notion that Julius Malema is a good leader.

The discussion raised an important point. Must a good leader also, per definition, be wise? Then of course the question of what is wisdom? We all know it when we see it, but what is it? There are many definitions and what is very apparent is that not everyone agrees what wisdom is and that it is not so much of an absolute as we may think.

There does seem to be a strong cultural component. What looks like wisdom to an American may be a foolish madness to a Syrian or Iraqi or Palestinian. Wisdom in cultures like India or Japan, or places like North Korea and Iran, appear to come from a different value system. In Sudan a woman is condemned to death by hanging after one hundred lashes for the apostasy of leaving Islam to marry a Christian. The government of Sudan believes it is wise to practice Sharia Law.

When decrying a shortage of good leaders, as we often do, we are not so much saying that there are not enough leaders, but that there are not enough who believe what we do. There is a shortage of leaders who think like us. We want them to have our wisdom.

Wisdom emerges as a culturally relative notion that has no clear universally accepted definition.

At the famous Max Planck Institute of Human Development and Education in Berlin, where they study and research these things, their experts have defined wisdom as “expert-level knowledge in the fundamental pragmatics of life”. They have established what is known as “The Berlin Paradigm” which describes four essential elements of wisdom. Of these, according to their research, only one was found to be necessary for successful transformational leadership. It is the “recognition and management of uncertainty”. The three other elements of wisdom that are not correlated with leadership success are “rich factual knowledge of life”, “rich procedural knowledge about life”, and “lifespan contextualism”. The bottom line seems to be that only one aspect of what they define as wisdom actually enhances leadership.

Getting back to Julius Malema, I’m not sure that he would qualify as someone with “expert-level knowledge in the pragmatics of life”. Some may disagree and would point to his political wheeling and dealing and his ability to survive while cleverly reinventing himself, as being exactly that; definite evidence of pragmatic life-skill. His EFF targeting the economic disadvantage of especially young South Africans and promising them better days if they elected him appears to meet precisely the key requirement of the “Berlin Paradigm”: “recognising and managing uncertainty”.

With so many leaders apparently making it with little or no wisdom, and with wisdom itself shown to be of limited value in leadership, why is there so much longing for it? Why do we feel so let down by shallow people who seem to have so little understanding? DM

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