For many years, the knowledge age made ‘know how’ a central currency for leaders and managers, it became a byword for capability and was a trait that was actively sought out and identified when recruiting in the workplace. With the coming of the information age, ‘know what’ grew in importance, and for leaders and managers to be successful, they needed to combine ‘knowing how’ with ‘knowing what’. This ability to combine practical considerations with the technicalities of achieving outcomes was regarded as vitally important in the drive for organisational success.

The Wisdom Age

In my opinion, we have entered a new age where ‘know why’ is of pivotal importance to those who manage and lead. Knowing how to make a decision, combined with knowing what to do to make the decision viable is now being combined with knowing why the decision is correct. For effective, competent management and leadership, all three elements must be in place. This is the ‘Wisdom Age’ and wise leadership and management will define it in social and economic terms.

In this Wisdom Age managers and leaders will draw upon their personal experiences when making decisions. These experiences, both positive and negative, are where we gain wisdom – and these wise decisions will set apart the more agile leaders and managers from their contemporaries. This wisdom age is one in which decisions are made using ‘know how’, ‘know what’ and ‘know why’. It may be argued that this has always been the case, but if we look at management and leadership practice, decisions made using gut instinct were routinely discarded in favour of what was seen as a more scientific, evidence-based approach.

What is ‘the why’?

When promoting the importance of ‘know why’, I think I should explain exactly the meaning of ‘why’ in this context. Why a decision is made can be quite prosaic:

Why should I make this decision?

  • Because I need to save money;
  • Because I need to make changes;
  • Because I have been told to;
  • Because if I do not the organisation will fail;
  • Because we must expand.
In the Wisdom Age the ‘why’ means something entirely different. Here we are asking our subconscious for evidence that this decision is fundamentally correct, that there is nothing in our experience memory that would warn us against this course of action. We contextualise the outcomes and processes of the decision and use our experiential wisdom to make a final decision.

This process has been with us for a very long time, and we have had a variety of names for it. We have called it ‘alarm bells ringing’, ‘something in the back of my mind’, or simply ‘it just doesn’t feel right’ and some organisations made a point of asking for this reaction before finalising major decisions. Wisdom can also be positive, intuitive optimism and can inform decisions that may be in the balance where the possibility of failure is a blockage to progress. Wisdom can offer a juxtaposition where a wider, more positive viewpoint can be obtained.

Street-wise decision-making

This wisdom is not linked to chronological age, as it is the experiences that an individual has gone through that will give them wisdom rather than how long they have lived. A person may live their whole life in a sheltered environment where they experience very little that could allow them to make informed decisions, yet historically they have been likely to go on to senior, strategic, decision-making roles in organisations. A child living in less fortunate circumstances will quickly become capable of using their experientially gained, rather than formally learned, knowledge to make good, considered decisions. Once again we have acknowledged this capability and have even given it a label: ‘street-wise’. What we are less likely to do is recognise its power within the business decision-making process. In the past, it was the person from the sheltered environment who was more likely to gain entry to university and then to go on to reach a decision-making level in employment. Yet if our reasoning is sound, they were less likely to make effective experientially based decisions as they had not personally experienced a great deal. What is needed for competency in decision making is for all three of ‘know how’, ‘know what’ and ‘know why’ to be in place. ‘Know how’ and ‘know what’ are usually gained by formal routes; ‘know why’ is gained through experience.

Does age relate to wisdom?

How is the situation changing? I think that many barriers within society and business continue to be broken down, rising through the ranks carried a stigma that would effectively prevent the majority reaching the top levels of decision-making. Now, as more and more businesses encourage their aspirant managers and leaders to gain the qualifications that will allow them to progress through the levels of an organisation, there will eventually be a discernible change in the demographic of leadership at all levels.

It is not just the advent of the employed status learners that has begun to effect this change; we are now also seeing non-traditional learners moving into management roles within organisations. This group of people are likely to have gained significant levels of ‘know why’ during their less protected formative years. This street-wise attitude, when combined with ‘know what’ and ‘know how’ that have been acquired through higher level study, has seen a rise in wise leadership and management.

Wisdom based decision making is not a new phenomenon, what I think has changed is the recognition of where this wisdom can be found. On many occasions a decision is passed to someone, usually older, for final approval and this someone would be perceived as being capable of applying some measure of experiential wisdom to the final decision. In the Wisdom Age, it is feasible for one person who has the capability of combining all three elements to make a well thought out, considered, wise decision and for chronological age to be unimportant. What I feel is important to emphasise is that this source of wisdom does not depend on age; it exists in anyone who has experienced anything at any time. We now acknowledge that intuition is something that can have a real impact upon decision making.

Many of the new cohort of successful business leaders are able to combine the three elements of what, how and why at a much earlier age than previously, partly as a result of wider participation in Higher Education or as a result of entrepreneurial drive to open their own business that allows them to lead wisely, and in many cases, successfully.

By Dr Barrie Kennard, chief executive of Leadership & Management Wales (LMW)