The 8 primary features of practical leadership and management wisdom
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The 8 primary features of practical leadership and management wisdom

leadership and management wisdom


Wisdom isn’t the most popular subject in organisations, in leadership and management development programmes or in research circles. 

Part of the problem is that many people see wisdom as some abstract unobtainable concept that has few practical outcomes. This view is probably a mistake.

The research numbers

Just a quick look at the number of peer-reviewed research articles on the following topics probably tells you everything you need to know about the overall research effort being put into leadership or management wisdom:


Number of papers (all time)

  • Leadership decision-making: in excess of 2,640,000 papers
  • Management decision-making: in excess of 2,220,000 papers
  • Management wisdom: 674 papers
  • Leadership wisdom: 364 papers


Not only is wisdom the poor relation of decision-making generally, it is interesting to note that there are approximately twice as many management wisdom papers than leadership wisdom papers.

Previous studies

Previous studies have found that concept of practical wisdom is somewhat of a ‘slippery concept’. The ambiguity around being able to define what wisdom is and how to become wise/have wisdom probably accounts for some of this lack of attention. A number of previous researchers have concluded that the idea of practical wisdom is so fuzzy and difficult to analyse that providing research-based conclusions and guidance with any level of certainty has hitherto been virtually impossible.


The situation hasn’t been helped by the fact that there is little agreement between researchers about the tools and methods for conducting research into practical wisdom.


A new study

A new study by a team of researchers from universities in Germany has conducted a wide ranging synthesis of research into practical leadership and management wisdom in an effort to bring some clarity to the field and provide a framework to help thinking about this topic.


The resurgence of interest

There has been a significant increase in research activity around practical leadership and management wisdom in recent years, largely as a direct result of very public leadership and management failings. This interest is largely being generated as a result of concerns about ethical decision-making by business and governmental leaders and managers. Additionally, there has been a more recent realisation that, as one 2015 study put it, “management relies heavily on phronesis or practical wisdom” and that many approaches to leadership and management thinking and decision-making are too mechanistic, formulaic and miss or ignore wider ethical and principled issues.


This explosion of interest in leadership and management wisdom can be seen in the fact that in 1990 one review research could find only two research papers about management wisdom. The fact that there have been over 650 studies since 1990 is an indication of the growing interest in this area.

This research paper is really a call for managers and leaders, management and leadership development and organisational development practitioners to incorporate the primary features of practical wisdom into organisational life and decision-making.

Where wisdom is studied

Phronesis or practical wisdom has traditionally been studied by three disciplines:


  1. Philosophy
  2. Psychology
  3. Theology

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The philosophical treatment of practical wisdom has tended to focus on a number of core issues:


  1. Cultural heritage and practical advice for daily living from history
  2. Traditional virtues, such as honesty and patience
  3. Decisions about what is appropriate in different circumstances
  4. Transformational and transcendental experiences of wisdom, particularly spiritual experiences
  5. As an understanding of intuition, compassion and affect or emotions
  6. The development of character and virtue
  7. How to make sound judgements and action
  8. In thinking and making wise choices and decisions
  9. On becoming virtuous
  10. Wisdom as a sense of balance
  11. Wisdom as an ability to have foresight
  12. Wisdom as self-management, emotion regulation and knowledge
  13. Wisdom in professional knowledge and the ability to make wise judgements
  14. Wisdom as an ability to entertain and navigate a diversity of perspectives and viewpoints.


The theological treatment of practical wisdom tends to coalesce around the following topics:


  1. Wisdom as a divine and handed down gift as opposed to an achievement or development
  2. Wisdom from a divine or universal natural source
  3. Historical religious heritage
  4. Wisdom as a guide particularly for navigating uncertainty
  5. Wisdom as a process of becoming open reality and having the ability to build to see and understand reality
  6. Wisdom for making sound judgements
  7. Wisdom as a moral and ethical virtue – how to make a good decision for the good
  8. Wisdom as an overarching concept that encapsulates all other virtues


The majority of the most recent research into wisdom centres around the discipline of psychology and, in particular, positive psychology. From a psychological perspective the core issues research looks at are:


  1. Wisdom as an affect – set of emotions powered by values and beliefs, for example empathy or compassion
  2. Reflective wisdom, such as the ability to purposefully think, engage in introspection, reflection and develop wise intuition
  3. Cognitive aspects of wisdom such as intelligence, thinking and problem-solving abilities
  4. Wisdom from an ethical and moral perspective
  5. Finding balance. This aspect of wisdom includes mindfulness and the ability to build and find internal balance, life balance, but also balance in interests and activities, as well as the ability to balance and manage uncertainty and ambiguity
  6. Wisdom as tolerance and acceptance
  7. Wisdom from experience and the development of expertise in order to enhance decision-making and thinking
  8. Wisdom in terms of being able to include systematic and systemic social and more global issues into one’s thinking and deliberations
  9. Wisdom from the perspective of being wise and promoting and developing wisdom


Practical leadership and management wisdom

From all of this, more recent research since 2000 started to focus on practical wisdom in leadership and management. In particular, recent studies have focused on:


  • Decision-making
  • Dealing with uncertainty, complexity and unpredictability
  • Dealing with dilemmas and paradoxes
  • Wisdom based strategy
  • Organisational wisdom (wisdom in, and the impact of, compliance cultures)
  • Wisdom in human resource management
  • Wisdom as well-being
  • Ethical decision-making
  • Wisdom as integrative capacity, or the ability to incorporate a wide range of issues, including ethical, moral and social systems factors
  • The ability to integrate the common good, truthfulness and beauty/aesthetics into work and organisational outcomes
  • Wisdom in decision-making and judgement making, particularly in the ability to question and challenge ‘common sense’, groupthink and dominant assumptions
  • Wisdom as the ability to incorporate and integrate evidence-based and research-based scientific information with human, social, ethical and moral aspects, particularly in terms of strategy
  • The development of wisdom as a leader and manager
  • Developing wisdom across an organisation
  • Practical wisdom as a prime methodology for dealing with complexity and uncertainty
  • Practical wisdom for improving decision-making and judgement making
  • Wisdom for personal involvement and awareness of personal limitations and shortcomings, as well as organisational limitations and shortcomings
  • Wisdom in learning and creating a learning organisation
  • Wisdom is humility
  • Organisational wisdom for benefiting from diversity
  • Balancing capacity across the organisation
  • Well-being
  • Using spiritual traditions to have a positive impact within an organisation
  • Seeking inspiration from other sources
  • Using wisdom for creating a dream or a vision and motivating people
  • Creating inspiring, credible and ethical goals
  • Wisdom in the use of power, particularly in terms of things like servant leadership
  • Wisdom in becoming informed and disciplined
  • Wisdom using evidence and research based sources in decision-making and day-to-day actions
  • Embracing religious ethos to promote innovation and entrepreneurial thinking


Eight primary features

The study found that practical wisdom for leaders and managers has eight key features:


  1. Action oriented – transforming information, knowledge, beliefs, values and decisions into action and achieving outcomes
  2. Integrative orientation – the ability to build and integrate all the layers of issues acting on an organisation into decision-making and being able to balance competing tensions and create a reflective, learning culture
  3. Normative feature – practical wisdom using different types of knowledge in order to create a good life for oneself and others in a way that is socially responsible
  4. Socially linked decisions – ensuring that decisions and actions are socially responsible
  5. Pluralistic decision-making and action taking – ensuring that the diversity of issues and perspectives are considered and taken account of
  6. Personality related features – these include developing authenticity, discipline, self-awareness and becoming ‘considered’
  7. Cultural heritage features – this means being sensitive and open to learning about, and from, history and cultural heritage, as well as taking part in helping to mould and adapt it to the new world context
  8. Limitation related features – this refers to the fact that practical wisdom includes an awareness of the limitations we have as individuals and developing humility, regardless of one’s own achievements, abilities or knowledge



This research paper is really a call for managers and leaders, management and leadership development and organisational development practitioners to incorporate the primary features of practical wisdom into organisational life and decision-making.


Whilst most people like the idea of developing wisdom, or of having wise leaders and managers, little effort is taken to consider how this may be developed and achieved. By reviewing the extant research literature around practical wisdom in general, and leadership management wisdom in particular, the researchers have been able to provide a framework from which practical wisdom can be conceptualised and understood more fully, in the hope that practical wisdom becomes more achievable.

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