Wisdom: the added dimension of leadership

Wisdom, I believe, separates good leaders from great leaders. That is one reason an article in the Sunday edition of The New York Times caught my eye. “Sharing the Wisdom of C.E.O.’s,” by Adam Bryant, provides lessons of five leaders Bryant has featured in his “Corner Office” column. The book, called “The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed,” shares lessons from interviews with 70 leaders about success and leadership. After that article appeared, Harvard Business Review featured an article called, The Big Idea: The Wise Leader in which the authors discuss what constitutes wise leadership.

I was curious what makes leaders wise. In her research, Concordia University professor Delores Pushkar explains wisdom is difficult to define. As with leadership, there are many ways to describe wisdom, though Pushkar and her research team have identified several hallmarks. Take a look at these qualities and you’ll understand why I consider wisdom to be a necessary component of a great leader: knowledge; deep understanding of human nature; life contentment; empathy; and perspective.

Can a leader be great without these hallmarks of wisdom? I know many leaders who have knowledge; in essence they are subject matter experts. But what about the other qualities Pushkar mentions as part of wisdom? Without empathy or personal well-being, for instance, I suggest that leaders remain experts in their field, but not necessarily great leaders. I wanted to know more about how positive psychology views wisdom and I found two explanations.  First, wisdom is one of the six virtues (core characteristics), identified by positive psychology researchers, to be highly valued by moral philosophers and religious thinkers across cultures. As a virtue, wisdom focuses on the acquisition and use of knowledge, according to acclaimed positive psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman.

Wisdom, according to Peterson and Seligman, also reveals itself as a “character strength,” or the way in which we display our virtues. In this case, wisdom is defined as perspective, or “being able to provide wise counsel to others…”  This is one of the qualities Pushkar mentions in her research. According to Peterson and Seligman, those who have the character strength of perspective would describe themselves as:

  • Possessing self-knowledge, and an accurate view of their strengths and weaknesses
  • Using both feelings and rationale to make decisions
  • Realizing larger patterns of meaning or relationship and seeing things from a wider perspective
  • Having a strong need to contribute to others and often turned to for advice
  • Using their personal standards as a guide for their behavior

Many of you would agree these descriptions are hallmarks for great leaders! These qualities are garnered through a combination of knowledge and experience, according to Peterson and Seligman, and not through intelligence and age. Despite the archetype of the “wise old leader,” Pushkar suggests age is irrelevant to wisdom. In terms of career, studies have shown that those who engage in career tasks in their late 30s and early 40s developed wisdom by their mid-40s. These tasks provide opportunities for crises to be successfully resolved, thereby adding to one’s wisdom (knowledge and experience).

Wisdom also helps us maintain a higher level of happiness, says Pushkar. Although chronic, extreme stress can detract from wisdom, generally speaking the buffering effects of wisdom can help us navigate the stressful times most of us encounter. Further, research indicates those who tend to be optimistic also tend to be wiser than their pessimistic peers.

There are simple things you can do to develop wisdom at work, according to Peterson and Seligman. Get involved! Find challenging career tasks and resolve them successfully. Find a mentor, or become one, and you will surely experience opportunities for perspective. Collaborate socially and take time to discuss and reflect. Wisdom is more than knowledge; it is also about perspective. Strive for wisdom and be a great leader!


Bryant, A. (2011, April 17). Distilling the wisdom of C.E.O.’s. The New York Times.

Concordia University (2011, April 8). What the world needs now? More wisdom. Science Daily. Retrieved April 18th, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110406122225.htm

Nonoka, I. &Takeuchi, H. (2011, May). The big idea: The wise leader. Harvard Business Review.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.