From Smart to Wise: Transformative Insights for Leaders

Posted 06.11.2024

As a senior executive coach, I get to work with a lot of really smart people who have serious processing power upstairs. Smart, however, doesn’t always mean wise.

In a nutshell, intelligence is usually about generating or acquiring knowledge while wisdom is about exercising good judgment in applying that knowledge.

There are other simple distinctions between intelligence and wisdom that you can use as a guide to determine in which direction you lean or, better yet, what it looks like to strike a productive balance between the two.

Here are a dozen distinctions on smart vs. wise that you can use as a development checklist for yourself and your leadership team:

  1. Fluid vs. Crystallized: In his great article in The Atlantic, Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think,  Arthur Brooks makes the distinction between fluid intelligence in which your brain is processing and generating new ideas like an Nvidia chip and crystallized intelligence in which your brain is connecting the dots between everything you’ve seen, done, and learned to offer judgment and perspective. While fluid intelligence is usually a hallmark of the first half of life and crystallized intelligence the second, the distinction can help you slow down your processing rate to help bring the crystallized wisdom to the forefront.
  2. Results vs. Relationships: The rapid processing power of fluid intelligence can cause leaders to over index on driving results and under index on the relationships that make long-term results possible. Wise leaders take the time to nurture relationships.
  3. Transactional vs. Transformational: My observation is that there are basically two productive ways for leaders to engage – with a transactional focus on problem solving and getting things done, or a more transformational approach focused on connecting with people. Transformational engagement builds the trust and alignment that makes the problem solving possible. Wise leaders practice it in balance with transactional engagement.
  4. Faster vs. Slower: Highly intelligent leaders are usually high-capacity people. The downside of that is they eventually find themselves with too much to do and not enough time to do it. They’re always running to the next meeting or conversation instead of pausing, breathing, and asking, “What’s the most important place for me to be right now in service of what we’re trying to accomplish?” Wise leaders embody the principle of going slower to go faster.
  5. Fight or Flight vs. Rest and Digest: All of that running can leave you in a chronic state of fight or flight. That’s what happens when your lizard brain (the amygdala) regularly overrides your executive functioning brain (the cerebral cortex). When that happens, decision making quality drops like a rock. The wise move is to shift your physiology to the rest and digest response which is your body’s braking system to the gas pedal of fight or flight. You can access that state by taking three deep breaths from your belly.
  6. Facts vs. Patterns: The overuse of intelligence can lead you to hyper focus on all the individual facts or data points that are right in front of you instead of the patterns or trends that make up the bigger picture that emerge from the data. Effective pattern analysis flows out of tapping into the wisdom of experience that enables you to just not see the dots but to connect them. Wise leaders give themselves the space to see the patterns.
  7. Scarcity vs. Abundance: When you don’t create the space to focus on the trends and patterns you can overlook key opportunities. When you overlook opportunities, it’s typical to start playing defense instead of offense. You then fall prey to what Stephen Covey referred to as the scarcity mindset vs. the abundance mindset. Wise leaders lean into the abundance mindset by looking for ways to grow the size of the pie instead of focusing on how to divide a shrinking pie into smaller and smaller pieces.
  8. Fixed vs. Growth: This distinction builds on Carol Dweck’s work on fixed vs. growth mindsets. Intelligence, when overused, can drive you into a cul-de-sac where the facts on the ground can make you think you don’t have any options. Wisdom, through drawing on the lessons of experience, can help you see that any situation is just that – a situation that is a temporary series of moments in time. That perspective can open your aperture to ways that you can grow through and out of the current situation.
  9. Objective vs. Subjective: Highly intelligent people often take pride in their ability to objectively look at the facts on the ground. In those instances, they can be strong on thinking and weak on feeling. The big fact is that almost any situation includes a huge subjective component called people. How they feel about a situation and their role in it matters as least as much as what they think about the facts. Wise leaders consider the subjective elements and not just the objective facts. They understand that logic must be seasoned with empathy before they act.
  10. What vs. How: You’ve likely heard the old idea that, “Your people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Wise leaders take the time to consider not just what they know but also how they need to engage.
  11. Short Term vs. Long Term: The rapid pace that intelligent people usually keep can cause them to focus more on the here and now instead of the now and the next. Wise leaders engage in and encourage long-term thinking as a guide for short-term action.
  12. Action vs. Reflection: And that leads to the last distinction of action vs. reflection. Wise leaders take the time and create the space to not just monitor and drive the action loops; they create and take the time to reflect on the larger operating environment, how they’re influencing it, and how they need to manage themselves to best create the impact they hope to have.   

Which of these distinctions between intelligence and wisdom resonate with you the most? Why do they? What other distinctions between intelligence and wisdom have you identified? Share your thoughts or experiences in a comment on LinkedIn or send me a note. I’d love to learn more from you.

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