“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
Once again, feel free to jump straight to the summary.
In order to effectively discuss the relationship between Wisdom and Adversity, we must first define both. Defining Adversity is the easier task, and encompasses either (at times significantly) difficult, unfair or unpleasant situations. And as we have already explored when considering how unique we all are from each other; we already know we are likely to perceive different things as adverse situations.
Wisdom is more difficult to define. This is because its classification varies across different disciplines, such as Philosophy, Theology, Psychology and even Management. But for our purposes, the definition of practical wisdom, being a “conciliatory conception of the various features in practical management” [i] seems the most appropriate definition.
Using this approach, we note that such wisdom looks to transform the theoretical into action[ii]. It also seeks to understand (and incorporate) the complexity of reality[iii], which is especially useful given our current ‘disruptive’ business climate. It contains a normative feature[iv], in which moral or ethical considerations are included, while also considering the societal link, which places these moral considerations into a larger structure of interconnectedness that we see in today’s global business realm. Finally, wisdom will allow for four other interrelated features[v] that include: Pluralism, which allows for our diversity of beliefs and perceptions; Personality, which links wisdom to the wise leader; Cultural Heritage, which includes how wisdom can be transmitted to emerging leaders; and Limitations of our human capabilities, which extends from the care of those in the leader’s change, to clients/customers, and society as a whole.
So how does adversity lead to wisdom? While we can interpret this from the above Features, there are other studies and approaches that also speak to this:
The Pillars of Wisdom [vi] has the element of Emotional Regulation. This is the closest we will ever come to that old adage “with age comes wisdom” being true. It is evident that, as we age, we learn to better regulate our emotions[vii]. It has been suggested that this is due to an older person’s sense of time changing to encourage their focus on the things they have found to be more important – such as emotional richness and relationships – and less on the youthful desire to acquire (knowledge, wealth, etc). However, it is also suggested that a traumatic event (e.g. experiencing the death of a loved one, or a terrorist attack) can distort this sense of time – and in these cases, a younger person’s sense of time is shortened to resemble that of an older person[viii], bring the benefits once said to be delivered by age.
But age cannot be the only factor to consider. With respect to traumatic events, as explored by Bessel Van Der Kolk [ix], the body will often retain its own version of a ‘memory’ of trauma. Learning the methods to resolve this physical memory means the business leader should expect to largely return to their previous abilities and status, but with the added advantage of an altered sense of time (i.e. the wisdom/focus of a much older person).
In the concept of Post-Traumatic Growth, understanding the value of the experience gained from a traumatic event is extremely powerful, and such a method aligned with the approach-oriented coping mechanism[x]. This also has the greatest benefits health-wise (the alternative being avoidance-oriented coping, which is well know to have massive negative physical and psychological impacts if utilised beyond the initial months following an event[xi]).
We also see this sentiment echoed in the more philosophical approaches such as Stocism, in which we are advised “Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our conditions” [xii], requiring (i) our Perception to see the opportunity, (ii) the Action required to take the opportunity, and (iii) the Will to overcome the challenges preventing action[xiii]. This would also seem to suggest that converting our obstacle to a challenge may then naturally add to our wisdom of such obstacles.
And of course, we see the same approaches in religious/spiritual theology. Consider the four noble truths of Buddhism, which suggests “either we resign ourselves to our suffering or we understand and skillfully use our suffering in order to eventually transcend it” [xiv]. In this approach, it is again our perception of the suffering as a challenge that provides the opportunity to overcome it.
The summary of this is an excellent companion to our discussion on unique genes, in which we more deeply understand how overcoming adversity has a positive effect at the biological level.
A conciliatory (cross-discipline) view of wisdom has identified the benefits of the abilities to:
- Transform our business plans (both strategic and tactical) into Action;
- Understand (and operate in) Complex environments;
- Apply the normative effects of Ethics and Morality to any situation;
- Understand the impact of our decisions to Society (both those social structures internal to the business, and also those within which the business operates);
- Utilise Plurality to operate within ambiguous contexts of culture, perception and beliefs;
- Link our wisdom to our leadership (in the context of operating as a “wise leader”);
- Create the Heritage that allows us to transmit our wisdom to other, emerging leaders; and
- Incorporate the limits of human ability into all our decisions.
This seems to be done, in part, via the impact on our sense of time following significant (traumatic or defining) events.
And these do apply to those overcoming significant challenges, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and its alternative perspective of Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG). Both are approaches which are echoed in far more older traditions and disciplines such as Stoicism and Buddhism.
But all underline one fact – with Adversity comes the opportunity for Wisdom. Great Wisdom. And, as Business Leaders, that can only be of great benefit to us and those within our sphere of influence.
[i] Claudius Bachmann, André Habisch, and Claus Dierksmeier. “Practical Wisdom: Management’s No Longer Forgotten Virtue.”:147
[ii] Bachmann Ibid. : 155.
[iii] Bachmann Ibid. :157
[iv] Bachmann Ibid. :158.
[v] Bachmann Ibid: 159.
[vi] Anthony W. Marker, “The Development of Practical Wisdom: Its Critical Role in Sustainable Performance”:12.
[vii] Marker. P10
[viii] Marker p.12
[ix] Bessel A. Van der Kolk. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
[x] Stephen Joseph Ph. D, What Doesn’t Kill Us : The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth: 117
[xi] Joseph Ibid: 118-119.
[xii] Holiday, Ryan. The Obstacle Is the Way : The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage: 7
[xiii] Holiday: 9. (Also Part 1: Perception pp13-61; Action pp65-124 & Will pp127-173)
[xiv] McRae, Emily. “Suffering and the Six Perfections: Using Adversity to Attain Wisdom in Mahāyāna Buddhist Ethics.” The Journal of Value Inquiry: 397
Bachmann, Claudius, André Habisch, and Claus Dierksmeier. “Practical Wisdom: Management’s No Longer Forgotten Virtue.” Journal of Business Ethics 153, no. 1 (11/15/ 2018): 147-65.
Holiday, Ryan. The Obstacle Is the Way : The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage. London, UNITED KINGDOM: Profile Books, 2014.
Joseph, Stephen. What Doesn’t Kill Us : The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth. Edited by body ProQuest issuing. New York : Basic Books, 2011.
Marker, Anthony W. “The Development of Practical Wisdom: Its Critical Role in Sustainable Performance.” Performance Improvement 52, no. 4 (2013): 11-21.
McRae, Emily. “Suffering and the Six Perfections: Using Adversity to Attain Wisdom in Mahāyāna Buddhist Ethics.” The Journal of Value Inquiry 52, no. 4 (December 01 2018): 395-410.
Van der Kolk, Bessel A. The Body Keeps the Score : Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, New York : : Penguin Books, 2015.