Picturing wisdom

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Julie Allan

Imagining wisdom

How do you picture wisdom?  You’ll see images throughout this edition that may represent contributory processes, or activities and outcomes aspiring to achieve wisdom. However, when we asked authors for any additional images they knew of that might represent their view of wisdom in some way, we were far from inundated with visual material. It’s hard to choose something graphic that conveys such a concept in a recognisable way without reducing it to something trite.

However, in trying to illustrate talks I’ve had to try to find connecting images. Options I have drawn on include a statue of Sophia (a Greek personification of wisdom), the face of a beautiful very elderly woman, an owl, a stack of ancient and clearly highly prized gold-edged volumes, a pearl and – the wild card, but the only one I’m sure about – Sir Norman Wisdom in his younger days, somehow trapped beneath a pillar box.  He’s there because of his name, but also to honour the wise fool.  Speaking truth to power has frequently been an unwisely dangerous move, yet as a fool’s game it provides the arguably necessary (and wise?) subversion of vested interests that work against wisdom.

As Guest Editor of this edition, before introducing the authors and the work to be found in the pages of this Summer 2012 edition of e-O&P, I’d like to explain the idea behind its title: How Can We Create Wiser Organisations?  I think it’s a difficult topic and, persuaded that there wouldn’t be a set of finished answers, I billed the call for papers as intended for those who wanted to join an exploration. In that call, I referenced the introduction to Sternberg’s 1990 edited text, Wisdom: its nature, origins and development, where Burren and Fisher assert a vision for wisdom. They write:

’It is hoped that research on wisdom will help develop useful tools to assist world and national leaders     in the increasingly complex problems facing humanity. Many crucial decisions, from nuclear waste to water use, face leaders and policy makers each day. Thus, wisdom is not simply for wise people or curious psychologists; it is for all people and the future of the world.‘

More than two decades later, we still need assistance around these topics and others of equally significant complexity.  The research has continued, with some differences over time, for example its inclusion of spirituality, and work on the running of social institutions as well as the content of educational processes.  We are increasingly urged, forced, or are choosing to seek wiser ways of organising ourselves, prompted by reasons of economics and sustainability — of people, commerce, countries or the planet.  So I wondered what contribution OD practitioners, among others, might make in creating wiser organisations. I asked for perspectives that ranged from the incremental, the radical, and the philosophical to views on the foolish. 

Having been delighted by the contributions received, I now rather want to add the subtitle ‘Provocations and Perspectives’, as I think that’s what we’ve achieved. It’s a start, I hope, of an ongoing conversation that’s already going to be in two parts, with Part 2 appearing in the guise of the Autumn 2012 edition of e-O&P.  Moreover, I’m keen that, later in the year or early in 2013, the authors convene face-to-face with others for a day that moves the conversation even further forward.  That meeting has yet to be arranged as this Part 1 goes to press, so watch this space!

Meantime, to give you a flavour of what to expect, here is a brief introduction to the authors who appear in this edition, and an indication of their perspectives on wisdom in organisations.

A wisdom kaleidoscope

Alistair Mant (On the getting of practical wisdom) is not, I am sure, intending to be unkind about my own evident interest in wisdom, as he flies a flag of warning about the newly-fashionable.  When wisdom gets into the Harvard Business Review, he says, caution may be required.  His article is both provocation and aide-memoire covering recent history, journeying through time from Aristotle to Tolstoy via banking and Warren Buffet, to produce a perspective that amply reflects his considerable corporate experience and his erudition in the systems thinking field.

Barry Oshry (What would Homo Systemicus do?), well known to most readers of e-O&P for his extensive systems-based work, undertakes the tricky task of describing a lens through which to view the world that, he argues, we have in the main yet to acquire. Adult development theories generally hold that you can’t grasp a concept that is of a stage you have yet to reach.  Beyond that, Oshry is writing of a kind of evolutionary shift to what he calls Homo Systemicus. Wisdom and wise outcomes in organisational life will, he argues, be more achievable for the evolving species of Homo Systemicus, who will have an ‘organic systems’ perspective, able to relate productively with both power and love.

Barbara Heinzen (Wisdom in a Time of Systemic Change) is a quiet pioneer and leading light of long range scenario planning. Her work has encompassed such complexity as scenarios for Kenya and how to deal well with water.  Having moved from London to a spot on the Hudson River in New York, she is now immersed in an international living learning experiment for sustainable commerce and community. In her scholarly and practical article, she highlights the fatal flaw of the Industrial Revolution and presents six core skills to support wisdom and the nature of transformation now required of us.

At heart, Barbara’s message is not about ‘bemoaning the past’ but about a focus on the possible new futures, and on small but fundamental actions or practices to help it emerge.  So, too, is the article by Graham Leicester.

Graham Leicester (Practical hope and wise initiative) addresses how vast a topic ‘wisdom’ can seem, and draws on the literature and poetry of his native Scotland as he brings the sense of awe that it inspires into a more manageable scale.  At the International Futures Forum (IFF), of which he is Director, their aim is to achieve good outcomes for people in a world of ‘radical interconnectedness’.  Here, ‘systems cannot be controlled, only disturbed, and our traditional understandings are no longer up to the task’. Including practical examples of changes achieved or in progress, Leicester also calls for the replacement of an unfounded optimism, which imagines a certain future, by hope, which is a call to action without certainty.

The article that follows Leicester reflects such hope in the sense of accepting that, in spite of ambiguity or uncertainty, wisdom indeed requires people to act – to move forward with intention.

Caroline Sharley (Leading as a whole person: a route for wisdom?) works in a bank, with fellow OD professional Samantha King. Caroline’s industry has found itself very publicly challenged over recent years, with many news stories of individual poor judgement and greed, systemic failures and socio-economic consequences on national and international scales.  However, she finds some inspiration in the attitude of leaders within Standard Chartered Bank, and in this article she describes and reflects on their leadership development programme. ‘Here for Good’ reads the bottom line of the bank’s brand belief: how does this translate into leadership activity and the wisdom needed for the long term?

Moving from the context of a whole leadership development programme, we come next to an issue that many will recognise in daily organisational life – how to have meetings that really use the wisdom the participants have to offer. Or, perhaps more accurately, use everything they bring in such a way that wisdom can emerge.

Always on the lookout for pragmatic tools that could really help people work together well and systemically for wiser outcomes, Andrea Gewessler (The wisdom of Dynamic Facilitation) was directed to the work of Jim Rough.  Her article describes her own experience of training in his creation, Dynamic Facilitation.  She addresses this alongside the thinking and the practice of Wisdom Councils, also developed by Rough, and a related option that came to be called a Creative Insight Council.  While working with her colleague Dr Manfred Hellrigl, Director of the Austrian Office of Future Affairs, she was able to find out how these approaches have made all the difference to the development of the Voralberg region.  Here, simple meeting structures, carefully carried through in a systemic and inclusive way, have enabled large-scale change.

My own article (Julie Allan, Mapping corporate wisdom) reflects a move towards a ‘wisdom tool’ of a different type.  I continue to research the concept of wisdom and what it means in our current organisational contexts, and here I share some of the theory and the reflections of research participants.  I propose a mapping approach that people in organisations might use to help them notice which aspects of wisdom they may be acknowledging and encouraging, and those which they may have sidelined.  I also relate this to executive coaching and to the supervision and self-support practices of development professionals.  My view is that wisdom will be hard to come by if we lack the ability to watch ourselves making choices and fail to understand what we are privileging and ignoring.

The edition is rounded off, by Nick Wright, in a highly reflective look at aspects of his own Christian belief systems, and of those he often works alongside.

Nick Wright (A word to the wise), as a consultant primarily to the third sector, frequently supports complex human endeavours in challenging times and places. Here, he writes about his experience with international Christian non-governmental organisations, where staff are familiar with understandings of wisdom derived from their faith.  Wright, a Christian himself, draws on the words of those working in such organisations as he reflects on the tensions that can arise when, for example, wisdom can also be seen as socially constructed and people will still disagree on the ‘wise’ action to take.  He proposes some habits and behaviours that might bear fruit.

And finally, please don’t miss the book reviews provided by Professor Bob Garratt and Dr Michael Marien on the works of Arnold Kransdorff (Knowledge Management: Begging for a Bigger Role) and one of our article authors, Graham Leicester (In Search of the Missing Elephant: Selected Essays by Donald N Michael with an introduction by Graham Leicester).  Garratt and Marien greatly liked the works; perhaps you will too. 

For more reading material to provoke and engage, at the end of this journal (see page 77) you’ll find details of several books published by Triarchy Press that are highly relevant to our theme of ‘Wisdom in Organisations’, and which are offered to e-O&P readers at a preferential discount.

Coming in Part 2 …

What about the ‘front end’ of wisdom – the process of educating our next generations?  Roy Blatchford, founder of the National Education Trust, ponders the school curriculum of the future and its delivery, and we link to the thought-provoking words of educationalist Sir Ken Robinson. Professor Bruce Lloyd at the Centre for International Studies at South Bank University has a longstanding interest in futures studies, knowledge management, ethics and wisdom and shares his reflections on a field that is as old as time, yet still emerging.  Adrian Brown, Chris Chapman and Sol Davidson are among the growing band of Part 2 author-practitioners set to share the experience and approaches that they have found wise or to assist in the emergence of wisdom. So do watch out for the Autumn 2012 edition of e-O&P, which appears at the end of August.  It will be worth the wait, and give you time to digest Part 1!

Thanks and acknowledgements

As well as the authors who appear in this edition, I’d like to thank Bob MacKenzie and David McAra, who valiantly and very practically nurture each edition of e-O&P on behalf of AMED, so that it comes to fruition.  I’d also like to acknowledge the inspiration of Triarchy Press, our publishing partners for this edition and its forthcoming Part 2. Triarchy’s Andrew Carey explains more about them elsewhere in this journal, and I’d also like to acknowledge here my hugely appreciated former colleague Gerard Fairtlough (1930-2007) who founded Triarchy, and who was a great travelling companion and co-author.  He said I should keep going with the wisdom thing.

About our Guest Editor

As a consultant, coach and supervisor, Julie works with change and development, connecting people with their capability so that they can make their best contributions. She works very systemically, with particular attention to what is newly emerging and to exploring impact.  An invited speaker and tutor in the areas of wisdom, gestalt and narratives, Julie’s publications include The power of the tale: using narratives for organisational success (Wiley 2002) and Gestalt Coaching in The handbook of coaching psychology (Routledge 2007), as well as chapters on ethics in relation to supervision.  She is a director of change consultancy Irving Allan and her ongoing research, learning and practice concerns the nature of corporate wisdom. A certified supervisor of coaches and consultants, pursuing enquiry-based learning for the emerging future, Julie also serves in ethics roles for the British Psychological Society.


Julie.allan@lemontree.f2s.com; julie@irvingallan.com

Blog: wiseways? 

Twitter: @juliesallan (twitter.com/juliesallan)


Many of the images throught the journal were kindly provided by Jonny Baker:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonnybaker/ and by Andrea Gewessler. 

Kaleidoscope images were created by David McAra, manipulating parts of the AMED and eO&P logos using the kaleidoscope feature of LunaPic, a free online picture editor at: http://www.lunapic.com/editor/

Other images were provided by the authors. 

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