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Leadership and Barry Schwartz’s Practical Wisdom

TED TalksI just finished watching Barry Schwartz’s recent TED Talk on Practical Wisdom and it reminded me so much of popular posts that Mario Vittone has been contributing to Weekly Leader. Both capture the easy-to-understand yet difficult-to-execute elements of effective leadership. Both call for common sense actions/behaviors that could have dramatic impact for individuals, organizations, communities and even nations. This video is a must watch for all students of leadership.

The foundation of Schwartz’s talk comes from Aristotle’s definition of “practical wisdom” which is the combination of moral will and moral skill. From the presentation, Schwartz suggests:

A “Wise” person:

  • knows when and how to “make the exception to every rule;”
  • knows when and how to improvise;
  • knows how to use moral skills in pursuit of the right aims;
  • is made not born.

“Wisdom” depends on Experience and leaders need:

  • time to get to know the people you are serving;
  • permission to be allowed to improvise, to try new things, to occasionally fail and learn from your failures;
  • to be mentored by wise teachers.

Schwartz states that in times of crisis, by default, we turn to rules and incentives to solve our problems; however, the problem is that these strategies erode our moral skills, discourage improvisation/innovation and guarantee mediocrity.  He also believes that moral ethics are difficult, if not impossible, to teach effectively, but celebrating moral heroes is easy and offers model behavior for aspiring leaders.

Finally, he believes that the single most important thing children need to learn is Character; “they need to learn to respect themselves, their schoolmates and learning.” Again, he suggests that teachers modeling desired behavior is the most effective way to help build Character.

Like great athletes, great leaders have a command of the fundamentals, practice and routinely execute them. Schwartz’s (and Aristotle’s) concept Practical Wisdom is a leadership fundamental. Watching Schwartz’s talk will help remind us of the important role experience plays in developing leaders. Of course, periodically revisiting Mario’s posts will help too!

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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