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Socrates Reloaded: In Search of Wisdom Part 1 of a Series on Wisdom as the Next Frontier for Business Strategy

Originally published March 13, 2012

In this article and the others in this series, I'll reflect on the characteristics of wisdom and then explain why I believe it is the next frontier for business strategy.

The Oracle of Delphi once labeled Socrates the wisest of all. Socrates was perplexed, since he didn’t consider himself wise. Socrates set out on a quest to prove the oracle wrong, asking questions to the people in Athens he thought of as wise: notables, judges, city administrators and so forth. To their dismay, his probing questions revealed that these so-called wise people did not have much wisdom; they could not answer Socrates’ questions in a satisfactory manner. Socrates came to the conclusion that if he did possess any wisdom, it was in the realization that at least he was convinced he knew little, in contrast to all the high-placed so-called wise people.
Socrates’ smart questions, and the effect they had on the youth in Athens, annoyed the authorities so much that they put him on trial. Even confronted with the choice between exile and death, Socrates kept questioning and challenging the court. He was sentenced to death.
Was Socrates the wisest of all because he valued his way of thinking more than life itself? Or did the guy just not know when to stop, showing there is a thin line between independent critical thinking and plain stubbornness?
Philosophy literally means “the love for wisdom.” Philosophers, therefore, are people who have a love for wisdom. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they display characteristics or behaviors we usually associate with wisdom. Nietzsche went mad, Confucius couldn’t get a job, Machiavelli was thrown out of office, and others affiliated themselves with questionable regimes.

What is Wisdom?

Wisdom proves to be a confusing subject of discussion and analysis, riddled with paradox. Wisdom is based on having a certain amount of knowledge of things, but it applies most to areas of uncertainty, such as future consequences of actions, or the consequences of decisions on others. A wise person can draw on significant knowledge, but keeps questioning everything. Wisdom means knowing what to do and when to do it, but it is equally about what not to do, and when not to do it. A wise person is deeply grounded in practice and has seen it all, yet stands above all. Wisdom means having a deep understanding of human emotions, but requires emotional detachment to keep things clear. Wisdom is usually associated with mastering self-reflection, but is mostly used as a label for people to turn to for advice.
Highly confusing. It is easy to list some wise people, like Gandhi, Mandela, Einstein, and even Yoda from the film Star Wars. But what it is that makes them wise?
The most common definition is that wisdom is the ability to produce maximum results with a minimum of time and energy. What is nice about this definition is that it introduces a continuous tension between two forces – a maximum of results, with a minimum of effort. The more you achieve with less effort, the wiser you are. The problem I have with the definition is that it’s an almost mechanistic view of wisdom, searching for an optimum. This definition must have its roots in the age of reason. With a little bit of effort, though, we can infer more from this definition. Given that both forces are continuously shifting, the definition also suggests some kind of fragile equilibrium, a careful balance. You can’t stop investing in wisdom because the factors it depends on (results and effort) continuously change. This makes total sense to me, and it sounds much more human, too. Still, there seems to be something missing. If wisdom requires an inquisitive mind that never stops questioning and wondering, the price for that is a certain lack of efficiency. Exploration comes with dead ends and some delays based on thinking things through one more time or considering another angle. I’d like to see a definition that is less efficient in nature, and more about effectiveness.

Postmodern Problems

The postmodern definition currently prevailing isn’t much help either. It says that wisdom is defined much more by the perceiver than by the source. In this sense, wisdom is nothing more than a social label. Wisdom is the concept derived from the examples that you have seen of people who are called wise. This pure, empirical view based on observation is very fashionable in social sciences that currently are very affected by neuroscience. Neuroscience is very influential in psychology, in areas related to decision theory, and there is even a field called neuroeconomics. Neuroscience also affects philosophy (particularly epistemology), because it focuses on how the human brain processes information, stores knowledge, makes decisions, and comes to action. In short, the brain is seen as a huge pattern recognition engine that works largely inductively. This means that the human brain creates concepts based on examples. The rule is derived from observations. Therefore, a cow is nothing else than an instance of similar things that we are taught to call cow. Wisdom is the behavior of those we call wise.
This view, true as it may be, is utterly useless when it comes to figuring out what wisdom means. It is the death trap for defining any concept. What this line of thinking does is shift all attributes of an object (all the things that describe it) to attributes of an observation. This opens the door for no truth in anything whatsoever – your attributes can be different than mine, but no better than mine. Truth has become opinion. If you try to prove me wrong, that is simply your opinion.
Much of the discussion is about opinion already. For instance, Confucius could easily be considered the prototypical wise man. A pupil once asked him (and I am paraphrasing loosely here) what he should do with new lessons learned. Should he find an opportunity to test them immediately? Confucius responded, “Not as long as your elder brother and father are alive.” (He meant the pupil should follow due process and follow the hierarchy before trying something new.) Later, another pupil asked the same question, and Confucius answered, “Of course! Right away.” Obviously, Confucius’ other pupils pointed out their master’s inconsistent answers. Confucius then explained that the first pupil needed a bit of restraint, because he was so eager, and the second pupil needed encouragement, as he was a bit behind. Confucius took a broader perspective and weighed specific circumstances in his answer.
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) seems to state the opposite. He felt our decisions should be guided by the categorical imperative. In short, "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." This means there are no circumstances that would affect your decisions. You need to do the right thing regardless, based on universal principles. For instance, it is always wrong to lie, to steal or to kill. If you lie, you contradict the reliability of language, and then we cannot rely on any form of communication. Therefore, a priori, it is wrong to lie. Wisdom, then, would be the ability to act according to these universal laws. Again, we are not much further in our quest to understand wisdom.

An Analysis of Wisdom

Still, the postmodern view does allow us to analyze the concept of wisdom. The most obvious type of analysis would be to look at any attributes we can find associated with wisdom. As these attributes are not connected to wisdom itself, but to the perception of wisdom, all we need to do is find the attributes that are shared by enough people, so we can induce a general picture. Wise people are humble and serene, have a deep sense of self-reflection and see things as they are,1 and so forth. Unfortunately, the analytical view isn’t much help, because you will probably find many attributes that seem to contradict each other. For example, wisdom requires deep knowledge, but also a high level of detachment. A wise person has many years of experience, but still questions everything. Wise people are consulted for their insight into someone else’s position, not for their own self-reflection. Wisdom is as much about doing things as it is about not doing them, and so forth. It is going to be hard to find a sufficiently shared view.
Even if it would be possible to find such a shared view, it wouldn’t help. Is everyone who has experience and a certain level of intelligence wise? I don’t think so. Is everyone who questions everything, has serenity, and is self-reflective considered wise? Again, the answer would have to be no. If we add more attributes, such as knowing when to do something, and applying a minimum of effort, would that complete the picture? The answer is still no. There obviously is some kind of X-factor that sits in between having or displaying certain characteristics and being wise.

What is the X-factor, you ask? I will dig into that in the next article. Stay tuned…

In the meantime, follow me on Twitter via @FrankBuytendijk.

  1. That is a bold claim nowadays because in the era of postmodernism, you can only see things as you see them!

Editor's Note:

Links to other articles in this series by Frank Buytendijk:

Part 2: Synthesis - Not Analysis

Part 3: What's the Point of Wisdom in Business Intelligence?

  • Frank BuytendijkFrank Buytendijk

    Frank's professional background in strategy, performance management and organizational behavior gives him a strong perspective across many domains in business and IT. He is an entertaining speaker at conferences all over the world, and was recently called an “intellectual provocateur” and described as “having an unusual warm tone of voice.” His work is frequently labeled as provocative, deep, truly original, and out of the box. More down to earth, his daughter once described it as “My daddy sits in airplanes, stands on stages, and tells jokes.” Frank is a former Gartner Research VP, and a seasoned IT executive. Frank is also a visiting fellow at Cranfield University School of Management, and author of various books, including Performance Leadership (McGraw-Hill, September 2008), and Dealing with Dilemmas (Wiley & Sons, August 2010). Frank's newest book, Socrates Reloaded, is now available and is highly recommended. Click here for more information on how to get your copy today.

    Editor's Note: More articles and a link to his popular blog are available in Frank's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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