Mark Strom: Talking wisdom for corporations
For the first of its new series of lectures, Brussels association ‘Philosophie et Management’ attracted top international expert Mark Strom, who came from Australia to address the audience on October 11. Having studied theology, philosophy and history in Australia and the USA, and with a PhD in the history of ideas, Mark Strom has also held senior executive posts. His views on ‘wisdom’ and how this applies to the business world, were therefore of particular interest to the audience at the ICHEC.
- Wisdom is increasingly recognised as having value
- It is to do with human flourishing
- Companies need to pay more attention to wisdom
- Wisdom speaks to strategy as much as to leadership
- The financial crisis illustratesthe need for wisdom
What were the main points of your talk to the ICHEC?
I began by pointing out that whiule wisdom has been a topic through history for all people, itis gaining currency in recent discussions about leadership and management. Recently I participated in a conference in Shanghai managementand complexity, and this broadening of wisdom’s relevance is to be welcomed. Yet we may also be reducing the topic in an unfortunate manner. For example, we tend to emphasise the individual and how a person comes to lead or manage wisely. This is important, but wisdom has never just been about the wisdom of one person for others – it is not just a matter of ‘I’ve got wisdom for you’ — we need to talk about the wisdom of others too. If the conversation ends up being only about the individual, then it will only extend to ethics, behaviour and decision-making. These issues are all important of course, but wisdom in the ancient traditions is far wider than this – how does a person learn to live in a manner which contributestohuman flourishing and the good of the wider world? A broader view is to think of wisdom in terms of reading the patterns of life. For example, in many traditions across the ages, from ancient Egyptian wisdom to Confucius, a river serves as an analogy for character. The traditions tell us that a river starts very small in very high places. As it comes down it gets bigger, deeper and wider until it flows into the sea. This metaphor suggests that greater responsibility and greater honourcomes to us through humility.
Did you move more specifically into the business world in your presentation?
Yes, I talked about how wisdom interacts with strategy, innovation, design and engagement. One of the themes which often emerges from ‘wisdom’ literature is the ability to recognise differences in human relationships. This is significantin the area of corporate governance. My relationship with my wife and children is, and must be, different from my relationship with other women and young adults.Those who carry great deal of responsibility must be able to discern what is appropriate to any particular relationship; what the boundaries are. If you are entrusted with something, this of course must operate within the law, both judicial and common.But it must also operate within a broader field:what we might call human decency. A company board member carries a responsibility not only to act within the letter of the law, but also to act in a way which leads to people flourishing rather than to being diminished. Wisdom doesn’t replace traditional theories of governance, but it can enrich them.
Is wisdom as required by a company leader intuitive, can it be learned, or just picked up along the way?
I think it’s all of those things. Suppose we think of wisdom and leadership in terms of simple human activities: like running, for example. I can run, but I’m very slow. Could I learn to run faster? Yes, with a good coach I am sure I could improve; but Iwould still be relativelyslow. I think we have wisdom as part of the human herd though, like running, but the abilityis not shared equally. Wisdom is certainly enriched byour depth of experience. Normally that linksto age, but not always. Some people at very young ages have had profound experiences of life, reflected on them well, and their lives have greater substance because of this. We have all had experiences of hearing a child say something which we, with all our maturity and sophistication, have missed.
Do companies and other bodies pay enough attention to this?
No! Let’s take strategy as an example. I have been involved with many companies, organisations and NGO’s over a long period of time. I have been to many ‘strategy retreats’ and facilitated many of them. First, few construct strategy as an argument. Analysis is important, but no one analyses their way to the future. Strategy is an act of imagination and the construction of argument where there can be no certainty. An undue reliance on analysis obscures this human craft. Second, I cannot tell you how often I have heard people say after their retreats that they came to realise they had never actually had the conversations they needed to have. They talk about how important it was to get an outcome on a piece of paper, but that the outcome didn’t live for them after the retreat. Consider late 2008 when the world fell apart financially. Countless groups of executives had held strategy retreats across the globeinthesix to nine months before the crisis was unmistakeable. Very, very few could honestly say that their strategy sessions had even considered, let aloneanticipated, that in a few months the world was going to implode financially.Rather, most would have set strategy as if the world was going to continue along the path of recent history. When the crisis hit, there were emergency board meetings across the globe, but very few if anycould have taken direction from what they set at their strategy retreats. Of course strategyis about markets and other commercial realities.But it needs to alsobe about identity about the things which matters the most, and it needs to seriously consider where we could be not only wrong, but foolish. Then whether the world carries on prospering or whether we are standing on the edge of a precipice even if we don’t know it, we will know how to act. If a board or Executive had considered such deeper realitiesat their retreat earlier in 2008 then, when the implosion happened, they would have been able to say “remember how we said we wanted to act…” and follow through on this resolve.