Cultivating wisdom at work

by 19 Apr 2012

Do you think there’s enough wisdom in the world? I ask this of diverse groups all over the world and the answer is always the same: we don’t have enough wisdom, and, unfortunately, we have probably never needed it more.

Senior leaders and Boards often look to hire leaders with a something they think of as “maturity” or “leadership presence” or some other quality they require but can’t quite name. It boils down to some key characteristics: a depth plus breadth of experience; an ability to take things in stride and not get worked up about the small stuff; a facility with making connections and seeing a bigger picture, and an ability to talk about that bigger picture in ways that allows others to catch a glimpse of it too.

The war for talent

The ‘war for talent’ that the organisations I work with always talk about is, in part, a quest to seek out and hire (and then retain) leaders with these qualities. And, no matter how big and successful each of these organisations might be, they all feel like they’re losing that war. It is the human way: to squabble over scarce resources and try to figure out what kind of resource or power will make us the winners.

I think it’s time for a different approach. Wisdom is not a rare metal with a finite stock. Wisdom is more like a crop we can cultivate than a jewel we have to mine. In order to actually grow our own stores, we have to change some of our organisational thinking and practices—and we have to do that today.

We have a propensity to put development off until tomorrow, when we have more time or more money (not noticing that in a modern organisation at least one and usually both of those are in short supply). I think we naturally have a core belief about what an organisation is meant to do. We believe that an organisation’s core mission is to deliver more of what it says it will: shareholder value, food for the hungry, services that increase the common good.

 Helping people grow

But what if all organisations shared a common second core business? That their job was to grow the workforce, grow the force of human capability, and the possibilities for wisdom in the world? What if it was every business’s job to create not only their expected outputs, but also to develop people who were more capable when they finished work than they were when they started?

I know what you’re thinking: helping people grow is a cost to the organisation and we will have to give up limited resources for that potential (but uncertain) good. I have a different approach that says, “Growing our people is our core business, because growing our people makes our core business better. These things are impossible to separate; as our people grow, our capacity to do good work grows as well.”

Organisations—no matter what the industry—will only be as successful as the humans who work inside them. If we were to invest in it, growing the capacities of the humans is more certain to build better results than any other investment—in technology or marketing or product development—an organisation could make.

Perhaps in the past, when work was simpler and the world of work easier to navigate, we could make due with the hit or miss approach to growing wisdom that most organisations still have. That time is past. It is time to stop mining for wisdom and start growing it ourselves.

Making a difference

So if you could believe all this, the next question is: How do we achieve it? There are some important and well-researched answers. We understand much about the way wisdom grows—and about why it doesn’t. Now it’s just time to cultivate the context for it to grow.  In my next piece, we’ll look at one way—that costs neither money nor time—to begin to make a difference in your organisation.


Human Capital readers have the chance to win a ticket to the invite-only Wisdom at Work conference, the second annual conference by The Leadership Circle in the Asia Pacific, in Sydney on Thursday 17 May from 8am – 1pm, at which Jennifer Garvey will be a Keynote speaker.

To enter, simply email the editor at for your view on what wisdom means. The winner will be judged by Jennifer.

Entries close 3 May 2012.

About the author

Dr. Jennifer Garvey Berger is a facilitator for The Leadership Circle, and will be a Keynote at The Leadership Circle’s invite-only Wisdom at Work conference in Sydney this May. A global leader in the applied adult development field, Jennifer teaches and speaks about leadership at places like Lucasfilm, the Commonwealth Club, and the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University. She uses theory and practice knowledge to help individuals and teams transform themselves and their organisations, and she writes about these ideas (her new book is Changing on the job: Developing leaders for a complex world). Jennifer earned a masters and a doctorate from Harvard University. You can contact Jennifer at

For more information on The Leadership Circle, please visit


  • by Jacqueline Johns 19/04/2012 2:59:17 PM

    How refreshing - someone speaking my language! Though Jennifer, I wouldn't dare to suggest your eloquence is in any way matched by my feeble mumblings.
    I am so glad someone of your education and experience is validating my humble view that an organisation can only be as effective as it's people,and that as we nurture our staff we are in fact, nurturing the business in the most effective way possible.
    With regard to growing wisdom, I strongly suggest corporate Australia (heck! why not the world?!) make onsite meditation classes compulsory. As Harvard Business School declared,"meditation and intuition are the two most valuable executive tools of the 21st century". Wisdom is within us all - meditation allows it to unfold.

  • by Jennifer Garvey Berger 2/05/2012 11:59:20 AM

    Hi Jacqueline,
    I'm glad we speak the same language! I think if more of us keep on about this idea, and if we find practices that actually support the work (as you suggest), we'll get somewhere. Thanks Harvard for spreading the word too... (Just had a meditation practice in the leadership program I'm running this morning!)

  • by Sandra Banister 3/05/2012 8:35:32 AM

    ...thanks Jacqueline for sharing your intuitive knowing. And for the Harvard quote that concurs with your wisdom! :-)