What is wisdom?

Brad C. Anderson


Wisdom in our lives.

  1. Consider someone you feel is wise. This person may be a teacher, a coach, a family member, a mentor–anyone you may have interacted with in your life whose actions you consider wise. On a computer or with paper and pen, write down why you feel they are wise. Be thorough in your answer. Is there a specific example where they exhibited their wisdom? If so, what was it about that situation that made it difficult? What did that person do in that situation that led you to feel they were acting wisely?
  2. Consider a situation in your life that you feel requires wisdom. This situation could, for example, include choosing a major in university or a career. It could be a severe problem at work or deciding how to discipline your child when they misbehave–any situation you feel requires wisdom. On a computer or with paper and pen, describe the situation. Then, discuss why you think wisdom is needed to resolve that situation. What are the characteristics of the situation that make it hard to solve?

Hold onto these notes. We’ll return to them later.


Is a politician who votes to turn undeveloped parkland into a condominium development a wise leader or a destructive fool? Your answer to that may depend on several factors, including the situation, your attitudes, and your culture.

Regarding the situation, your assessment of the politician may depend on several factors. Your view may differ if the undeveloped park is a haven for coyotes that attack pets and small children versus a tranquil hiking area for nearby residents.

Your attitude also influences your judgment. Your view of the politician’s actions will differ if you believe, for example, that creating homes for people is more critical than preserving nature.

The culture in which you live will influence your attitudes.  If your culture’s beliefs and values honour the sanctity of nature above commercial development, that may seep into your views, affecting your judgment of the politician.

The actions we define as wise depend on our understanding of the social context in which the action happens and personal and cultural perspectives.[1] [2] Different people may perceive the situation differently. Their values and beliefs may differ from one another. They may come from different cultures with different attitudes. Thus, though you may judge the politician a dangerous fool, another person may see them as the wisest of leaders.

If perceptions of wisdom differ from one person to the next, can we truly know what wisdom is? If there is no unifying perception of what is wise, how can we develop wisdom?

Though opinions of wisdom may vary, there are unifying structures that we can understand. Though various thinkers and cultures may categorize them differently, this textbook presents these unifying structures as follows.[3]

  • Values:  Values guide wise action
  • Rationality: Knowledge is required but insufficient for wise action
  • Power: Wisdom is action-oriented

Values guide wise action. Values define the ends we believe are worth achieving, and the means we feel are appropriate to achieve those ends.[4] Generally, the people we perceive as wise are those who pursue the values we share.

In complex organizations, different groups may pursue different values. For example, the finance department of a hospital may want to reduce costs, whereas physicians and nurses may wish to maximize the quality of care for patients.

There are times when these values may conflict–reducing costs may impact patient care, for example. Wisdom requires deft management of these value interactions.

Knowledge is required but insufficient for wise action. Knowledge means knowing how and knowing about.[5] It is related to the concept of rationality.

Rationality describes how we come to know something and how we make decisions and justify our actions.[6]

Knowledge is required because we need to understand our environment to choose what action is appropriate. Knowledge is insufficient, though, because what we truly know is often limited and flawed.

Moreover, different people “know” different things, so whose knowledge is pertinent in a given situation? For example, the finance department of a hospital may rely on ‘economic rationality’ where decisions are based on cost-benefit analyses. On the other hand, physicians may rely on ‘technocratic rationality,’ which uses scientific experiments to choose a course of action.

If those two forms of rationality justify different actions, to whom should we listen? In many situations, we must choose a course of action even though our knowledge is incomplete and disputed.

Wisdom is action-oriented. Wisdom is not knowing the right thing but doing it.[7][8] Taking action requires passion and courage. Passion because you need to believe it is worth the effort to act. Courage because acting involves risk. You may make mistakes. You may make enemies.

Action is related to power. To create organizational action, you must understand how to get things done and then exercise your power to make things happen. You must also understand how others might use their power to resist your efforts and what you can do to overcome that.


Return to the notes you made on the individual you believe is wise. Review the attributes you wrote about what made you consider them wise. Do you see any connections between what you wrote and the themes of wisdom?

  • Values guide wise action. Do you recognize the values you share with the person?
  • Knowledge is required but insufficient for wise action. Is the person knowledgeable? When the situation is ambiguous and uncertain, are they still able to act?
  • Wisdom is action-oriented. Does the person take action to do what they believe is right?

Look back on your notes on the situation you felt required wisdom. What makes that situation so tricky to resolve?

  • Are there competing values or ideas of what is right and wrong?
  • Are you unsure of what the right thing to do is?
  • Do you feel powerless to make the desired action happen?

Key Takeaways

  • The actions we define as wise depend on our perception of the social context in which they occur and personal and cultural attitudes.
  • The three structures of wisdom.
    • Values guide wise action.
    • Knowledge is required but insufficient for wise action.
    • Wisdom is action-oriented

  1. Sampson, E. E. (1998). The Political Organization of Wisdom and Courage. In S. Srivastva & D. L. Cooperrider (Eds.), Organizational Wisdom and Executive Courage (pp. 118–133). San Francisco: The New Lexington Press.
  2. Earley, P. C., & Offermann, L. R. (2007). Interpersonal Epistemology--Wisdom, Culture, and Organizations. In E. H. Kessler & J. R. Bailey (Eds.), Handbook of Organizational and Managerial Wisdom (pp. 295–325). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
  3. Anderson, B. C. (2019). Values, Rationality, and Power: Developing Organizational Wisdom--A Case Study of a Canadian Healthcare Authority. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
  4. Townley, B. (2008). Reason’s Neglect: Rationality and Organizing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
  5. Grant, R. M. (1996). Toward a Knowledge-Based Theory of the Firm. Strategic Management Journal, 17(S2), 109–122.
  6. Townley, B. (2008). Reason’s Neglect: Rationality and Organizing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
  7. Bierly III, P. E., Kessler, E. H., & Christensen, E. W. (2000). Organizational Learning, Knowledge and Wisdom. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 13(6), 595–618.
  8. Kessler, E. H., & Bailey, J. R. (2007). Introduction--Understanding, Applying, and Developing Organizational and Managerial Wisdom. In E. H. Kessler & J. R. Bailey (Eds.), Handbook of Organizational and Managerial Wisdom (pp. xv–lxxiv). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.


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What is wisdom? Copyright © 2020 by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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