For the past two weeks I have written about the importance of Words and Wit when it comes to leadership. Unless leaders master the art of communication, we will not be leaders for long. Just witness the events in Egypt. Or go to the cinema to see the Academy Award nominated film, The King’s Speech. The more trying the times, the more important those words become. But not just any words will do; they must be wise words. Where does the wisdom for leadership come from? What sensitivities come into play? There’s no one, simple formula, but this Provision offers four important considerations. I hope you will read it through and ponder them for yourself.
As I write this, the situation on the ground in Egypt is becoming increasingly unstable. President Mubarak’s cabinet has resigned and it is not clear how either the police or the military are aligned. “Cairo falls into near anarchy” was the headline of The Washington Post. By the time you read this, President Mubarak himself, after three decades of being in power, may have been forced to step aside.
For President Mubarak to avoid that eventuality, it will take not only a miracle • it will take wisdom. He will have to persuade people not only that he understands their needs but that he is the best person to lead the country through a period of reflection, reorganization, and reconciliation. It’s doubtful the people will give him that chance; unless he demonstrates wisdom, it’s not only doubtful, it’s impossible.
Wisdom carries at least two connotations. On the one hand, there is the spiritual sense of understanding the mysteries of life. In this sense, wisdom = enlightenment. The ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, captured this sense well when he observed, “He who knows others is learned. He who knows himself is wise.” No one can lead others without self-knowledge.
There is also, however, a more practical and even political side to wisdom. Consider these definitions culled from Dictionary.com: “the ability to think and act utilizing knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight.”
If President Mubarak, or any leader for that matter, stands a chance, it will be because he demonstrates that kind of practical wisdom. To get there, self-knowledge is certainly important. Without enlightenment, ego inevitably gets in the way. We think it is all about us and we make decisions on that basis. What do we want? What will make us look good? What will protect our interests? Such questions always usurp wisdom.
The classic stories of practical wisdom come from the time of King Solomon in ancient Israel. You probably know the tales, but here are quick summaries:
At the outset of his reign, while he was a very young man, he had a dream in which God said to him, “Ask what you would like me to give you.” Solomon responded by asking God to give him a heart to understand how to discern good and evil, so that he could be a wise leader of his people. This request pleased God very much. “Since you have asked for this,” God said, “and not asked for a long life for yourself or riches or the death of your enemies, but have asked for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked.”
Soon thereafter, Solomon had to resolve a dispute between two women about which one was the true mother of a baby boy. The two women had each had babies at about the same time and lived together in the same house. One baby died in the night, while sleeping with its mother. When that happened, and while the other woman slept, the mother of the dead child surreptitiously swapped the two babies. After recognizing what had happened, the true mother appealed to Solomon, asking him to give the child back to her.
Solomon initially refused to take sides. Instead, he proposed to cut the living child in half with a sword, giving each woman her fair share of the carcass. The deceitful woman agreed to this proposal while the true mother refused to witness the killing of her son, even if meant having to suffer the heartbreak of losing the child to the other woman. That settled the dispute for Solomon. He wisely declared that the woman who showed compassion was the true mother, and he gave the baby back to her.
Both stories have much to teach us about leadership as well as wisdom. We would all do well to be motivated by the desire to serve our people wisely. Many leaders give lip service to this desire but are actually motivated more by the power and perks that come with leadership. All positions of leadership come with certain privileges and there is no harm in enjoying those privileges.
The problem comes when we make those privileges the driving force behind our leadership. That’s when ego takes over and judgment gets clouded. There is no way to know what’s going through the head of President Mubarak at this time; one thing is certain, however: if he is holding onto power for its privileges, that power will slip through his fingers.
Great leaders are motivated by a higher calling. We ask not, “What does this mean for me and my position?” We ask, “What does this mean for my people and organization?” Whether that organization is a large nation or a small group, it represents real people with real needs. Meeting those needs and meeting them well is the driving force behind great leadership. Indeed, everything else pales in comparison.
That’s actually the easy part of wisdom. Most leaders will acknowledge that the responsibility of their position has more to do with service than self. Leaders would not be leaders if we were motivated, at least in part, by the mission. The hard part of wisdom is to keep our ego in check and to act shrewdly to advance the common good.
Solomon acted shrewdly in settling the dispute between the two women. That doesn’t mean he was tricky; it rather means that he brought into play four of the most important needs when it comes to human motivation: autonomy, relatedness, competence, and purpose. When leaders honor those four needs, wisdom is sure to follow.
- Autonomy. Had Solomon taken charge of the decision he might have never found out the truth. When people’s autonomy needs are stepped on, they tend to dig in their heels and do stupid things. Getting everyone in an uproar is not the path of wisdom. In both ancient Israel and modern Egypt, leadership that does not respect the autonomy needs of people is soon to be no leadership at all. People naturally want to express themselves and advance their interests. Great leaders wisely respect and leverage that dynamic.
- Relatedness. Solomon knew that relatedness is just as strong a need as autonomy. People do not naturally want to express themselves and advance their interests at the expense of others. The desire to hurt and to harm others surfaces only when legitimate options fail. The preposterous idea of dividing the child in two brought relatedness sharply into focus. Who would want to do that? Only someone who doesn’t feel connected. Great leaders wisely maintain a life-giving sense of connection with people. Once it becomes toxic, the people rebel.
- Competence. One thing is clear in the Solomon story: both women knew and were capable of telling the truth. Solomon did not want to infantilize these women by making the decision for them. He therefore acknowledged not only their autonomy but also their competence. In effect, he put the decision in their hands and they made the decision: the true mother gave the child to the imposter. Solomon could have left things there, and the child would still have been spared. Instead, he wisely intervened. Competence proved to be its own reward.
- Purpose. There is an inherent synergy between great leaders and great movements. The purpose itself is an invisible hand, calling out leaders and driving the course of events. That purpose is always life-enhancing. When destructive and violent forces come into play, they may hold sway for a time but they cannot endure forever. The true purpose of life is to build people up rather than to tear people down. Solomon counted on that. He knew that given a choice, the purpose of life would prevail. Great leaders hold that truth to be self-evident and act accordingly.
Such actions are the essence of wisdom. They flow from an inner knowing and they overflow with generous abundance. That was one of my takeaways from the Academy Award nominated film,The King’s Speech. Based on a true story, the relationship between King George VI of England and his speech coach is portrayed as respecting all four of the above needs. The coach was never impatient and did not play the expert. The coach simply knew, without hesitation or doubt, that the King could overcome his stammering. That was the inner knowing.
And over a lifetime of consideration, where the King never gave a speech without his coach being present, the two men evolved a relationship that proved to be part and parcel of saving the Allies from the Axis powers during World War II. The King’s autonomy, relatedness, competence, and purpose were never compromised. They were, instead, enhanced until a lifelong scourge was lifted.
That is the hope of all great leadership and all great coaching: that better part of wisdom in the affairs of people will prevail. No leader is ever perfect when it comes to the exercise of our duties. But we can be wise enough to make a difference for life.
Coaching Inquiries: In what ways does your leadership honor autonomy, relatedness, competence, and purpose? What effects have you noticed? How could you increase your self-knowledge and application of wisdom? How can you strengthen both your motivation and your methods? Who might become your coach on the journey?
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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
Love your Provision, Wit Matters. We follow the FISH philosophy at Oakwood!!! Everyday we work to get our students follow those four basic tenants. You’d be amazed at how big of a difference focusing on those four things has made for our kids!
Have you heard of “Lambert’s Cafe: The Only Home of the Throwed Rolls“? They have the same philosophy as FISH, only they throw rolls. Years ago we pulled in and had THE most joyful lunch. It was truly more laughter, such togetherness, and fun. A deliciously joyful experience.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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