The Abundance of Wise Leadership

The Academy of Management meets annually. This year I was particularly struck by a panel in which I participated. It was called, Where have the Wise Leaders Gone? It was designed so scholars representing the great religious traditions could explore basic notions regarding the development of wise leadership across traditions and see the connection to modern science.
One man examined Taoism. He said that our unique self originates in the immortal. By cultivating the mind, we return to the immortal. Virtue is excellence. We develop virtue through contemplative practices. When we cultivate virtue, we return to the source and we are enlightened and we become one with source or the expression of Tao in the world.
The next man reviewed Buddhism and said similar things about contemplative practices, enlightenment and the state of oneness. We come to know ourselves through self-actualization. We become virtuous and give ourselves away through self-transcendence. Leadership happens in a community of practice. Leadership is a selfless focus on the well-being of others and influencing by becoming an example of excellence.
When I eventually stood, I felt a need to answer the question: where have all the wise leaders gone? I said I was taken by the notions of leadership as cultivation of the mind, self-understanding followed by self-transcendence, and the exemplification of virtue or excellence through selfless love. I had just come from a session in which I had declared “leadership is understood by shifting from the conventional assumption that culture triumphs over conscience to the unconventional assumption of culture being driven by conscience.”
I told them I would like to make a stark shift and move from the realm of conceptualization to the realm of action. I gave the audience an exercise: each person was to tell a story about the one person who left the most positive legacy in their life. After their discussions, I asked each pair to identify a characteristic shared by the two mentors they described. I integrated their answers with the science of transformational leadership which suggests leaders model excellence, show love, inspire possibility, and stimulate developmental thoughts. I then connected these principles back to the principles of selflessness and example.
I pointed out there is a natural defensiveness with which we block both the ancient traditions and the modern theories of excellence. They hold too much accountability. They call for us to become who we really are and we fear the process of becoming our best self.
I then pointed out that the world is full of wise leaders: everyone in the room had a mother, a teacher, a coach, or a boss that exemplified the principles of wise leadership. Wise leadership is rare because it is exemplified by 1 in 100, but it is abundant because there are millions of 100s.
I then asked a personal question. “Given what you now know about the fruits of wise leadership in your own life, how would you like to change yourself right now?” This was a meaningful moment.
Afterwards I had a sacred experience. I was surrounded by a diverse group of people representing many countries. Each was authentically interested in making the world a better place by making themselves better. I felt a union with them. I was surrounded by wise leaders.

  • What is social excellence?
  • What is self-transcendence?
  • What can we learn by observing the most positive contributors to our own lives?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


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