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Deb Maes

Dr Gene Early the writer of Five Deadliest Sins of Leadership

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Wisdom Leadership:
What the World Needs Now

published IN OCTOBER 2023

If you are a political leader or taking the lead as a global citizen, you don’t need to be told that you have to grapple with immense challenges, known as 'Wicked Problems,’ problems that are complex, multifaceted, and resistant to traditional solutions.

And you’d know that you do so under volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) conditions. Whether you are working at a local level, as a Mayor, or at a global level, like the Secretary General of the UN, you are affected by the global VUCA conditions.

You would also endure first-hand the constant risk of criticism and, at times, outright attacks on you personally for your decisions.

To deal effectively with these unprecedented challenges in these unprecedented times, relying solely on past experience, consultants, and experts is insufficient. This is where embracing and nurturing "Existential Wisdom" becomes imperative.

What is Existential Wisdom?

You might be wondering what Existential Wisdom is. It is a deep understanding of the fundamental aspects of human existence. It involves recognising and grappling with profound questions and uncertainties and using this understanding to make meaningful and sound decisions.

It requires self-awareness, personal responsibility, and the pursuit of a purpose and meaning in the face of life's inherent challenges. This can not be found in the advice of others or books. The only place this can be found is within ourselves; it is Inner Wisdom.

You might also be questioning how it can be applied to global problems. We don’t need to guess about it; we already have many examples of successful leaders using this approach.

Using Inner Wisdom to Navigate ‘Wicked Problem’:
A True Story

One such example is Ian de Cruz, Director of Partnerships, Innovation, and Investment at the World Resources Institute. He is a wonderful example of using 'Inner Wisdom' to navigate a 'Wicked Problem' under VUCA conditions despite potential criticism.

I recently interviewed Ian and asked how he accessed Inner Wisdom to make Wisdom Decisions in challenging times when dealing with complex problems.

Ian shared a specific example: In 2018, when leading an initiative, Partnering for Green Growth And The Global Goals 2030 (P4G), the year they launched an initiative to bring forward innovative green business models in a way that would also help implement climate change action in emerging economies. This was with the support of global finance and technology, including countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands, and the Republic of Korea. At a high-prestige international summit, the board committed to funding partnerships. The wicked problem they faced was a decision that could be seen as politically contentious and could have huge negative ramifications. It involved one partnership which had an association with a Chinese corporation. The question was raised as to the fairness of this.

Ian faced significant pressure to change that decision and risked losing the lead on this initiative. He had spent a decade, maybe even his whole career toward this moment, and he was aware that he risked losing everything. All this happened so quickly. He did not have time to digest the full magnitude, even though it was very apparent to him what was at stake.

Yet, he was clear in his response, “No. We have transparent criteria for making decisions on partnerships. We are looking to scale impact. We are looking to bring the best finance and technology on the chance of emerging markets. And this is a partnership we want.” He was willing to stand by that decision even if it seemed unpopular from a public press perspective. He could be steadfast because he was very clear about their vision and mission, and why they do what they do.

That decision turned out to be a litmus test of the kind of culture that they wanted in this initiative: what they were prepared to say yes or no to. Despite the ramifications of a potentially unpopular decision, it was a moment where he took a principled approach, using self-awareness, personal responsibility, and pursuing what was important at a human existence level.

It was a decision that ultimately catapulted the initiative towards its current success, setting the tone for the initiative, for the values and integrity… in selecting their partnerships and building the communities they wanted.

What is a Wisdom Decision

As I spoke with Ian about this defining moment in the success of the initiative, I wondered about the inner process that informed such a clear and decisive response. “Could I ask? Why would you reference this as a ‘wisdom decision’?”

In reply, Ian explained, “You know, that classic Socrates quote, right...

’To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.’

To lead - to be a leader of others - you need to lead yourself - not just your light side, but your shadow too. And to lead yourself, you have to know what your purpose is and the impact you want to achieve.

Wisdom to me, comes from transcending self-interest, to truly care for others, based on your purpose, and it has to be very personal to your own life experience, your own philosophy, and what you are looking to achieve intentionally in life.

Many people who are leaders have no wisdom because they are seeking self-interest. They seek status, they seek a material outcome, and they seek power and influence for the sake of it.

Why are you doing what you do? And how does this relate to you personally? A wise leader has answers to all those questions.

When I wake up in the morning, I ask myself, ‘ What am I aiming to do?’ I'm creating a system in the field I work in, climate change and sustainable development, to actually bring opportunity and choice to the people most impacted by climate change in emerging economies. They're the most vulnerable and may not have the platform to finance the technology. People who, in most cases, if not all, have not even contributed to this issue yet suffer the consequences.

And it is knowing my Origin Story that informs and guides me; my Nana was born at a time, in a certain context, that meant her mother had to give her up. And if she didn't have the institution of the church to protect her, we don't know what my family story would have been.

Knowing who you are and why you are doing what you are doing, this informs wisdom.

Wisdom is knowing that what I'm doing in my work is aligned with my personal origin story, which is aligned with my personal experience and aligned with a purpose that transcends self-interests, that transcend the here and now. And this informs the work we are doing in my field: seeking intergenerational equity and intercountry equity.”

A Structure of Wisdom

What I took from Ian’s example is a structure of wisdom. For Ian, it comes from understanding self, including his shadow self, and his origin story. This manifests in him as an individual, it manifests in his leadership, it manifests in the institutions and organisations he is associated with.

We must understand ourselves to lead others and make wise decisions when required. With a sense of self, including an origin story and the shadow self, this is one way - a structural approach - to accessing the Inner Wisdom that is available to all global leaders to help guide them in these unprecedented times.

Deb Maes editor of five deadliest sin

Deb Maes | WRITOR

Deb is like a magician in the way she is able to discern the exact key to unlock more of the untapped potential in leaders.

CONTRIBUTOR: Dr Gene Early, Alexis Jane
THANK YOU TO Ian De Cruz for his generousity

The compelling Leading team is not only passionate but highly skilled and experienced at supporting global leaders to access and apply wisdom in their work and lives. Please reach out to us if you would like to know more about our work.