How to be a wise leader

10 August 2016

Wisdom comes with age we are told. Hari Tsoukas disagrees. He believes wisdom can be taught and feels being a wise leader is also necessary in an increasingly complex and uncertain world. Here, Martin Boonham asks Professor Tsoukas about leading wisely.

Boonham: What makes a ‘wise leader’?

Tsoukas: A condition for a leader to act wisely is to strive to maintain the balance - even better, the tension - between knowing and doubting.

As the distinguished organisational psychologist Karl Weick remarked “wisdom is an attitude, not a state of things”. To maintain the balance between knowing and doubting one needs to act like an acrobat, adjusting one’s posture as one walks on the wire.

Take the example of Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. When he was asked whether he brought to the management of the oil spill a ‘template’ from his previous experiences, he answered: “Yes and no.”

He tells his experience of handling similar incidents in the past (the “yes” component), but he also notes that every incident is different and its uniqueness must be grasped (the “no” component).

The attitude of wisdom makes a leader sensitive to context, to the competing values and stakeholders’ perspectives that, simultaneously, must be paid attention to for the sake of some superior common good, and to the process through which both the situation at hand and the way it is handled change. 

Boonham: What sort of people are ‘wise leaders’?

Tsoukas: Psychological studies show that wisdom is an attribute of a well-integrated and mature personality that involves self-development and self-transcendence.

Self-development has to do with a reflective attitude to experience, and an awareness of one’s pre-judgements - the biases and prejudices one inevitably brings to a situation. All this has to do with a leader’s ability to simultaneously generate different descriptions of a situation – to develop what I call “second-order complexity”.

Recall, Admiral Allen’s response: “Yes and no.” The “and” is important: similar past experiences and the uniqueness of the experience at hand are joined together. It is as if he says: “I know and I do not know” at the same time.

Knowledge gives him the ability and confidence to undertake action. Doubt about his knowledge allows him to explore the uniqueness of the situation at hand and change the mental model he inevitably brings to the situation (namely, to work on his pre-judgements).  

Self-transcendence means transcending individualistic, narcissistic thoughts and feelings to embrace collective and, even, universal concerns.

The best recent example here is Nelson Mandela. Having spent 27 years in prison, his instinctive reaction would have been to restore justice in South Africa through taking revenge on his oppressors. Being adored as a leader, he could have indulged himself, relishing the glory and privileges of power, and ‘follow’ the popular sentiments of the time.

Instead, he opted for forgiveness, reconciliation and the future. He stepped down from President to give the country the opportunity to mature politically and institutionally without him at the helm.

Mandela’s unwavering effort to push aside sectional sentiments and focus instead on the national common good, and his ability to see himself as a leader whose job is to lead rather than merely follow his people, enabled him to symbolise the country he had envisioned.

You can only imagine the self-transcendence required: put your ego aside and see yourself as a tool for the achievement of the common good. It is an extraordinary and hugely exemplary achievement that inspires.   

Boonham: There is not a true single leadership style, as such, is there? Should a good leader therefore adapt many leadership styles?

Tsoukas: A good leader needs to adapt his or her style, certainly, without losing coherence and credibility, but beware: for situational adaptiveness to be productive, it needs to have been developed and ingrained into the personality of the leader.

Adaptability is not so much a calculated response (‘if the situation is X, then do Y’) as an intuitive capacity to do the right thing, in the right context, at the right time.

What is ‘right’ is not always defined or clear in advance; one needs to work it out by staying in tune with the particularity of the situation, one’s perceptual grasp of it, and with one’s moral compass. Adaptability is a virtue that is the product of experience and volition.

Look again at Admiral Allen. Referring to Hurricane Katrina, in the handling of which he also had a pivotal role, he exalts a leader’s flexibility in switching mental model when the situation requires it.

“It was clear to me”, he notes, “after 24 hours in New Orleans that we weren’t dealing only with a natural disaster."

The uniqueness of the catastrophe brought about by the hurricane was that “we had lost continuity of Government. So the mental model became more like the response to a weapon of mass effect”. Admiral Allen went on to talk of situations in which he needed to depart from protocol and go “off book”.

Adaptive leadership means having an intuitive grasp of the situation you handle so that you can respond appropriately. Soon after he took charge of the Katrina response operation, Admiral Allen went on to address a huge meeting of 2,000 workers at Baton Rouge.

His inspiring talk gave moral support, reassurance, and guidance to his bewildered staff. It was the right thing to do, at the right time. How did he know it? He just knew! That’s what being in tune with the situation means.

Boonham: Are mistakes ok for a leader? Are there any mistakes you’ve seen leaders regularly make?

Tsoukas: To err is human. Why would leaders be exceptions to this? All people make mistakes, but leaders, because of their particular role, are prone to particular kinds of mistakes.

Here are a few: over-confidence and the associated vices (typically, a know-it-all attitude, arrogance, self-absorption, and narcissism), indecisiveness, fear of delegation (and the associated difficulty of trusting others), and not walking the talk.

Typically, several leaders’ mistakes stem from the relationality of leadership – leaders and followers have expectations of one another, which, if not handled properly, may create vicious circles and lead to mistakes.

Take over-confidence, for example. We expect leaders to know what they do, to be confident and show it. However, looking at leaders from ‘within’, they do not always know what is required, they often “walk in the fog” (to use Milan Kundera’s brilliant phrase), and have doubts about the effectiveness of their actions or even about their abilities.

None of this can be legitimately shared with subordinates. We expect a certain façade and leaders, especially in a society of instant and constant communication, often construct and show the façade we expect them to show.

Ignorance and doubt are suppressed, the persona prevails. Before not too long, leaders take the persona for real and their judgement is distorted.         

Boonham: What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?

Tsoukas: Leadership has always been about defining reality, focusing others’ attention on what needs to be done, and inspiring people to do it.

I am not wise enough to offer advice, but I can perhaps point a novice leader to great leaders’ advice: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it,” said General Dwight Eisenhower. And to slightly paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, stop all theorising about what a good leader should be. Be it!


Hari Tsoukas is Professor of Organisation Behaviour and teaches Leadership and the Art of Judgement on the Executive MBA and Executive MBA (London).

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