Wisdom has been sought after by both leaders and followers alike for centuries.
Followers tend to seek it out in their leaders by using the tried and true trick of "knowing it when they see it," but where do leaders turn to find wisdom?
Confucius has been credited with saying: By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.
While I am generally not opposed to eastern philosophy, I think there's another answer, or at least a more practical one to the question of how and where wisdom can be obtained.
Some learned minds have written that wisdom is synonymous with the search for the meaning of life. W. Somerset Maugham, one of America's finest authors, wrote about the search for wisdom and the meaning of life in The Razor's Edge.
If you've not read it, you might consider doing so.
The book's epigraph is as good as any place to find a summary of the book, which reads: "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard."
You might know that Maugham was writing about transcendentalism before it was cool to do so, in the mid-twentieth century.
He was later credited with laying the groundwork for the Beats of the 1960's, but he denied having 'discovered' anything of import. Nevertheless, his writings have a distinct connection back to Thoreau's writings a century earlier, when America first delved into transcendentalism.
I've always thought that Thoreau was inexorably linked with the American independence movement, with its higher level values of liberty and equality.
Regardless of whether or not that's true, the American experiment has produced the world's greatest socio-economic system-even with flaws and missteps-if measured primarily by equality of opportunity (means) with individual achievement (ends).
The link between opportunity and achievement is something great leaders know and understand.
Early on in The Razor's Edge, there is an exchange between Larry Darrell and his fiancee, Isabel Bradley, where Larry tells her of his plans to travel to Paris for a while to loaf on a small inheritance, postponing their marriage.
Isabel: 'And after that? What are you going to do with all this wisdom?'
Larry: 'If I ever acquire wisdom I suppose I will be wise enough to know what to do with it.'
This laissez-faire approach to the acquisition and use of wisdom is witty at least, but it is unfortunately not the right way to achievement and success, no matter how they might be routinely defined. Rather, wisdom can and should be intentionally sought.
This too is something great leaders know and understand.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wisely knew that, in order for the new nation to survive, they had to lay the groundwork for individual opportunity and achievement. They did so through the tenacious pursuit of individual liberty, free markets, education, and yes, wisdom.
Abraham Lincoln also knew that for the nation to survive, slavery had to end not only because it was wrong, but because it was holding back the South. He proposed and pursued a course of action that would lead to the extension of fundamental freedoms for all.
A wise course, indeed.
Woodrow Wilson traded the American individualist idea for international consensus building on a scale never before seen, nor since. The result was the eventual rise of a nationalistic Europe, World War II, and the Soviet and Nazi Holocausts. Trading individualism for consensus didn't turn out to be such a wise idea.
Calvin Coolidge prolonged the Great Depression through reckless decision making processes that forced government intervention in the national economy. Coolidge foolishly substituted the government's preferences and lack of wisdom for individual economic decisions, and the results stand for themselves.
Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan - and no it is not a mistake to list the two together - inspired the nation's people to greatness through individual responsibility, and challenged us to innovate and to tackle the challenges of technology and Communism. The results of their administration's policies also stand for themselves, I believe as a testament to their wisdom.
There are other examples of the relationship between the individualistic opportunity-achievement framework and wisdom, like those found in the modern discourse on corporate leadership, but I like the ones displayed by our nation's presidents.
When our nation's leaders have intentionally sought wisdom out, great things have taken place.
- - -
Keith O. Barrows is a lifelong student of leadership. His Leadership Matters column appears regularly in The Express. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.