Conversation as the Pre-requisite for Wisdom

The only way that an organization – a church or a non-profit, an educational institution for example – can be effective is if they make the right decisions when it comes to the choices that need to be made so that the mission of the organization happens.   Effective leadership is about choosing and acting well:  make the right decision, most of the time(!) [we will not always get it right] and having chosen a course of action, actually doing what you have decided needs to be done. 

But there are two steps here.  The first is to make the right decision.  And for that, we need wisdom:   we need the capacity to read the situation well and then recognize the best way forward.   We need wisdom for this particular situation and problem or issue.   We need to act, of course.  But before we act – whether it is the implementation of a policy or the decision to construct a building or a personnel decision where we offer a contract to a new employee, we need to know if this is the right thing to do. 

And what I want to propose is this.   Consider taking the following as a given:  that no one person has the wisdom needed for this organization to know what to do in this situation.   Sure, there are always those who wonder why we are talking about this or that because they themselves already know what is needed or what is the best way forward.  That is, they assume that if they were asked, no conversation towards wisdom would be needed.   Meetings could be much shorter! 

But another possibility is to recognize that wisdom will come through a process of speaking, listening and weighing, together, what might be the best way forward in this situation.   

A while back I was asked what do I enjoy most about being a university president.   I confess that I was a little surprised by the question.  But as I thought about it, I realize that indeed the answer is precisely this:  those moments when through a process of conversation with a group of four or six or eight or perhaps a few more [but not many more], we came to see something that we could only get to together:   the outcome, the wisdom for this time and this place, came through conversation.   We listened and we spoke; we asked questions.   We considered and respected alternate perspectives on the issue at hand.  Though the process some of us even felt some freedom to speak to both sides of the issue, as part of trying to make sense of the problem we were trying to solve.  And the end product?  Well, not consensus necessarily; and perhaps we did not all agree on what needed to be done.  The goal is not unanimity but wisdom. 

And when this is done well – it can be one of the most gratifying parts of working in an organization:  learning together and being part of conversations that lead to wisdom that, of course, ultimately lead to good choices so that the mission of the organization happens.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.