wisdom learning listening knowledge

On Learning, Listening, and Wisdom

By Kevin Meyer Published on May 14th, 2021

wisdom learning listening knowledge

I’ve long felt that the single best indicator of leadership success, especially at the executive level, is whether the person is a voracious learner.  Bonus points if the person intentionally looks for opportunities to learn new knowledge outside of her or his traditional interests, and even more if the person can efficiently distill the new knowledge into concise experiments and then teach (not edict!) the organization on it.  I haven’t met a person yet with that trifecta that has not succeeded in both career and life.

We’ve used several methods to get a feel for if and how a candidate likes to learn.  One was to ask them to deliver a presentation on a subject of personal interest, where we learned about topics ranging from candle-making to beekeeping.  There are downsides to this depending on other requirements for the position, which we’re sensitive to and try to accommodate, but it has generally worked.

How Do You Learn?

Marc Zao-Sanders penned a piece for the Harvard Business Review this week that aligns with learning being an indicator of success.  In Identify and Hire Lifelong Learners he posits that a single question can open a conversation that helps understand how the person views learning:

How do you learn?

The answer will show whether learning is an important, and intentional, part of their lives – and how they go about doing it.

This is not about simplistic learning preferences (such as schedules and modalities) or broadly discredited learning styles (such as being a visual or aural learner). This is about an individual’s personal system for updating, improving, and sharing her knowledge and skills. Does the job candidate you’re considering have such a system? And, for that matter, do you?

Hiring and Development

This question can be used as part of the hiring process to gauge curiousity, intentionality, and method.  Care should be taken to be inclusive in terms of learning opportunities, styles, and methods – all can be relevant and valuable.  As a candidate, the question can be used in reverse to understand how supportive the organization is of learning, and how it is valued.

The question can also be used as part of the development process (preferably not the traditional annual review, with all its inherent problems).  How does the person discover gaps and opportunities in knowledge, and attempt to close them?  And, in reverse, how does the organization support and value that activity?

Applying Wisdom

We traditionally conflate knowledge and wisdom, but as David Brooks describes in Wisdom Isn’t What You Think It Is last week, wisdom is more how knowledge is understood and used.

Wisdom is different from knowledge. Montaigne pointed out you can be knowledgeable with another person’s knowledge, but you can’t be wise with another person’s wisdom. Wisdom has an embodied moral element; out of your own moments of suffering comes a compassionate regard for the frailty of others.

Wisdom requires listening to the knowledge, and the context of that knowledge, of others.

Wise people don’t tell us what to do, they start by witnessing our story. They take the anecdotes, rationalizations and episodes we tell, and see us in a noble struggle. They see our narratives both from the inside, as we experience them, and from the outside, as we can’t. They see the ways we’re navigating the dialectics of life — intimacy versus independence, control versus uncertainty — and understand that our current self is just where we are right now, part of a long continuum of growth.

People only change after they’ve felt understood. The really good confidants — the people we go to for wisdom — are more like story editors than sages. They take in your story, accept it, but prod you to reconsider it so you can change your relationship to your past and future. They ask you to clarify what it is you really want, or what baggage you left out of your clean tale. They ask you to probe for the deep problem that underlies the convenient surface problem you’ve come to them with.

This is an interesting angle for lean leaders, consultants, and coaches: listen first to understand, then challenge to find new pathways where other knowledge – and perhaps tools – can be applied.  Don’t simply convey knowledge or edict action.

In effect, by applying wisdom in this manner, you are creating new knowledge – again.  Perhaps my criteria for executive success should be extended to be “if the person is a voracious learner, can distill the new knowledge into concise experiments, can teach the new knowledge… and has the wisdom to then help the organization generate more new knowledge.

How do you learn?  What do you do with the new knowledge?

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