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Meaning and The Wise Leader

Mon, May 16, 2011


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In a recent article titled Wise Leader in the Harvard Business Review, Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi, argue that despite a sea of knowledge CEOs are unable to “to ensure that their people adhere to values and ethics,” “reinvent their corporation,” or prevent catastrophes.  They argue, as per Bent Flyvbjerg, that social sciences should be asking questions such as “Where are we going?” “Who gains, who loses?” and what development is desirable.

The solution, the authors claim, is a new kind of knowledge, which they call practical wisdom, or phronesis, which is “experiential knowledge that enables people to make ethically sound judgments.”  This know-what knowledge, enables corporations to see how their actions affect the eco-system in which they function and make decisions that not only serve their own interests but also serve the common good, and the authors expand on this knowledge by delineating six abilities that constitute practical wisdom, namely: the ability to “judge goodness,” to “grasp the essence,” to “create shared contexts,” to “communicate the essence,” to “exercise political power,” and to “foster practical wisdom in others.”

The problem with this analysis is that in one breath it claims both that knowledge is failing us and that we need more knowledge, albeit a different kind of knowledge which, is gained in an obscure and mysteriously fashion from experience.  We are left with no explanation as to how such knowledge is gained, leaving us with at best guesses as to how the stated abilities are gained.  The result is clear, since no one can figure out the formula, leaders with such abilities are few and far in between and are thus revered as rare prodigies.

If instead we consider that the school of experience that such leaders undergo teaches them essentially to decipher, create, and share meaning, much of what the authors argue comes into sharp focus.  Then for example, we understand that when leaders leaders fail to prevent catastrophes it is because they are unable to decipher the meaning that connects the events and information in front of them, and that if leaders fail to motivate employees to follow the values of their organization it is because they are unable to communicate meaning.

It should follow naturally that the foundation of the six abilities listed by the authors is this key ability to create, decipher, and share meaning, something that we need to examine to see if meaning indeed underlies what the authors are talking about.  I shall proceed to do just this for each of the six abilities.

Judging Goodness

According to the authors, leaders must have the “values and ethics,” to be able to judge “what is good or bad.”  Their values must be their own, and they must make judgments for the common good.  This ability is cultivated in four ways: from experience gained while overcoming adversity, from distilling “principles gained from life experience,” from “relentless pursuit of excellence,” and from being well-versed in the liberal arts such as philosophy, history, literature, and the fine arts.”

Let us take the last method, the liberal arts, first.  Basically, such liberal arts are the primary vehicles of meaning in our society.  Take history for example.  Real historical understanding is clearly not just a listing of events, but an understanding of how and why such events occurred and how they have affected our present society and identity and shaped the way we view things.  In effect, history is an understanding of a structure of relationships.  This is clearly meta-knowledge, or meaning.  Other liberal arts do much the same, but using different vehicles, such as music, or art, or literature, each of which has created an disseminated shared towers of meaning.  At the pinnacle of these towers are those principles and values that allow us to navigate what is good or bad.

Two other items, experience gained from overcoming adversity and distilling principles from experience, both can be seen as deciphering meaning.  What is interesting is that the authors have identified experiential learning as a key element in creating meaning structures in the mind.

Which leaves us with the “relentless pursuit of excellence,” which is in effect a value, which would be found at the top of a particular tower of meaning.  The authors have not explained how such a tower can be constructed, which clearly points to a large scale research project of its own, together with the many other research projects needed to understand how various meaning towers are constructed.  Clearly, we have already postulated that experiential learning is a key element.

Grasp the Essence

According to the authors, “wise leaders (must) quickly sense what lies behind a situation and project a vision of the future or the consequences.”  They must be able to “grasp universal truths from the particulars and details.”  This ability is gained by “relentlessly asking what the basis of a problem or situation is,” by seeing the “big picture,” and by “constructing and testing hypothesis.”

The abilities to see what lies behind a situation and to see the big picture, are both meaning deciphering abilities.  Basically, such abilities require individuals to be able to grasp the relationships between diverse sets of information and to synthesize this information into a meaning construct.  Such meaning constructs in reference to other guiding towers of meaning provide a map for navigating a course of action.  This navigational map is often referred to as vision—i.e. the ability to comprehend what has transpired in the past happening and then to see the way forward.  The authors show us important principles underlying this ability, to be able to dig below the surface of a problem, to see create a map and to constantly be experimenting with meaning constructs that can be tested and either added to a tower of meaning or discarded if their predictions prove false.

Create Shared Contexts

This ability maps directly to the ability to share meaning.  The authors talk about creating and environment in which relationships can form and information exchanged.  Such environments are the natural means by which people exchange meaning, provided of course, that we understand the right kind of ingredients needed to allow meaning to flow freely, something that again needs research to establish.

Communicate the Essence

Again, this ability maps to the ability to share meaning, especially since the essence of a matter is the meaning behind it, or stated another way, the essential relationships that underlie facts.

According to the authors, stories are the main carries of such communication, “helping us gain self-knowledge through the experiences” of characters in the story, and they claim furthermore that stories touch people’s hearts and minds.  The reason for this is clear if we postulate that stories are a prominent vehicle for communicating meaning.  Touch hearts and minds, can be translated as touching every part of our minds, conscious and subconscious, and since meaning is basically the operating system of the mind, and such stories are vehicles for meaning, they reach every part of our minds.

Also gaining self-knowledge by seeing what others did under stress conveys to us an important mechanism for creating towers of meaning.  Stories are in effect a distillation of meaning, since a story must have particular significance to be told and retold again, which implies that such stories carry essential meaning in a form that can be grasped by its audience.  As such our minds seem to be able to take this distilled meaning as a digestible form for creating meaning constructs in our own minds, rather like a balanced protein diet that can be broken down and reconstructed in our minds.

Exercise Political Power

The authors state that leaders must bring people together and mobilize them for action and that they do this “by understanding the viewpoints and emotions of others, gleaned through everyday verbal and nonverbal communication.”  Further they claim that leaders must have dialectical thinking to allow them to analyze contradictions in human nature and to be able to use their imagination and vision to move to a higher level of understanding.

These three skills, one linear (or left-brained) and the other two non-linear (or right-brained) are the mark of a balanced mind approach that is necessary for deciphering and creating meaning.  In other words, such leaders can use such abilities to decipher meaning behind the behaviors of their colleagues and then use imagination to create meaning that leads to a meaning map or vision.  These constructs then act as navigational guides showing what action is most effective in mobilizing others.

Foster Practical Wisdom in Others

This last skill is basically an essential skill in the Economy of Meaning.  In fact, much of the work in the Economy of Meaning is centered around helping others construct their own towers of meaning so they can expand their minds and consciousness and cope with reality.


Having established meaning, its creation and exchange, as the essential activity behind the practical wisdom mentioned by Nonaka and Takeuchi, we now have a sharp focus and basis for understanding what that third knowledge is that they call wisdom.  But in effect we can claim that this third knowledge is not just knowledge but meta-knowledge, or the ability to decipher essential relationships between phenomena, what we commonly refer to as meaning.  This then opens the doors for multiple avenues of research into how meaning is created, how meaning is deciphered (meaning analysis) and how meaning is communicated.


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