Seek the wisdom of others: Pay attention to those who have come before


As I have grown and matured over 42 years of health care industry leadership, I have benefitted tremendously from the works and thinking of others. I read voraciously and still do, not only from works on health care, but also from the literature on philosophy, ethics and biography.

I concluded that leaders have much to learn from both the ancient and the more current wisdom thinkers. These sages offer timeless advice, if we are only willing to take the time to reflect on their teaching. And other than the time invested in reading and in what I would term “deep reflective thinking,” their work is entirely free!

shutterstock_112225700Within the confines of a 700-word article, I am highlighting a few leading contenders for wisdom thinkers. I break them down into these three broad categories calling us to lead. Of course, there are many, many more, so I would invite you to go find yours.

First is the call for us to constantly self-reflect as we face life and all that life offers us:

“An unexamined life is not worth living,” is attributed to the philosopher Socrates.

A recent corollary by author Parker Palmer admonishing leaders and professionals says, “If you choose to live an unexamined life, for God’s sake do not take a job that allows you to impose it on other people.”

The takeaway here is to start by examining oneself … with one’s interior self. This focus on self- examination and interiority is to be sure our habits, our values and our leadership practices are aligned.

Second is the call for us to engage with others in a relational way. This call was put another way by a Catholic sister who led a health system where I was a senior leader. She said our call was to engage in relationships “for a reason…to be purposeful.” In other words, my take was for us to be conscious and intentional.

Here’s an example from the sports world … football, to be precise. By the way, those who know me well are not surprised at this choice of analogies, as I have long used a quote I created in my leadership, teaching and coaching experiences:

“Life … is football, played in street clothes.”

Tom Landry was the immortalized Dallas Cowboys head coach during the Roger Staubach, America’s Team era of that storied franchise. Say what you will about his coaching style, his record, his life … his quotes are a call for leaders to engage in a relational way, in an intentional way … for a reason:

“A coach (leader/teacher) is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.” And, “Leadership is getting someone to do what they don’t want to do, to achieve what they want to achieve.”

So as leaders/teachers/coaches/parents/friends, we are aiming to evoke a deep response from those we lead, teach, coach and parent. That’s our intention…our reason, or at least in my experience, it should be … so others can become what they always wanted to be.

Third is the call for leaders to simplify the complexity they face, but in a strategic way. That leadership strategy in my opinion was best outlined by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 20th Century. His call was this: “I would not give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity. I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Huh? Whatzzit? You might be thinking: What’s the significant takeaway here? My sense is the takeaway for leaders ought to compel us to ask ourselves: How can I best analyze and translate difficult concepts to others?

My experiences have shown these three steps to be most productive:

First, by deeply understanding underlying assumptions and meanings.

Second, by pursuing a line of inquiry so we actually dig for knowledge …by asking questions of the author, the researcher, the presenter.

Third, by committing ourselves to develop explanations of whatever we’re describing that are clear, that don’t obfuscate, and that, in the words of my high school religion teacher, “pierce to the heart of the truth.”

For developing your leadership to be at the highest and best use of your time and talents, my advice is to seek wisdom. It may appear in unlikely places and not exactly be in the form of literature. It could be from the NFL, from being in a high school locker room, at a neighborhood pub, hanging out with family or in a college philosophy class.

Pay attention to those who have come before and learn from their legacy.

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