The wise have disappeared

27th February 2009 at 00:00

Despite living in one of the richest countries in the world, these are times when it is hard to be optimistic.

Our economy appears to be in freefall. Unemployment is rising. We are one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, yet another report tells us that young people are unhappy, depressed or anti-social. We can't agree what we need to do about global warming, let alone do it. Our political system is outdated and discredited.

And, oh yes, I nearly forgot. We have made a reasonable fist of identifying the capacities which young people need to be able to live in times of change - but don't appear to have an idea of how to bring about the radical changes to develop them.

The top people in banking, politics, the civil service and the media are clever. They have good degrees at top universities. Left or right, they argue their case and demolish arguments with consummate skill. But they don't provide the kind of leadership we need in times of massive and complex change.

Why not? I recently revisited the work of Michael Fullan on leadership. He highlights six styles identified by Daniel Goleman, two of which don't bring about sustainable improvements in times of change. One is the "coercive style" ("do what I tell you") where leaders demand compliance. The other is the "pacesetting style" ("do as I do now") where leaders set high standards for performance and relentlessly pursue one innovation after another, pin-pointing poor performers without giving them the time and support they need to improve.

That's the bad news. I hope you've stayed with me long enough for the good news. Deep down, most of us know what we should be doing differently; we just need help to do it. And at the grass roots in Scottish education, in local authorities, schools and classrooms, there are many people who are capable of helping others do what they need to do differently. In other words, they have what is needed to be effective leaders in times of complex change.

These people combine Goleman's other four styles of leadership: authoritative ("come with me"), affiliative ("people come first"), democratic ("what do you think?") and coaching ("try this"). They are people capable of turning classrooms and schools into genuine learning communities. If we let them do it - if we support them to do it.

These are two very big "ifs". It requires leaders at all levels, including local and national government, who are not simply word-smart and logic-smart, but who combine intellectual, emotional and spiritual intelligence. Who are wise rather than clever.

But how do you spot the difference between cleverness and wisdom? Guy Claxton says that, above all, wisdom is practical. It involves seeing through the apparent issue to the real one underneath. Wisdom is uncompromising about fundamental values, but flexible and creative about the means whereby they are to be preserved or pursued. Wisdom is what he calls "good judgment in hard cases", where important decisions have to be made on the basis of insufficient data. Above all, to be wise you need to be mindful of your own world as well as that of the other person: people-smart and self-smart.

The best description of the difference between cleverness and wisdom, however, comes from Reg Revans, the originator of action learning sets, over half a century ago. "The clever man will tell you what he knows; he may even try to explain it to you. The wise man encourages you to discover it for yourself, even although he knows it inside out. But since he seems to give you nothing, we have no need to reward him. Thus the wise have disappeared and we are left in a desolation of the clever."

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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