Uncertainty, Risk, Innovation, Adaptability: The Wise Leader

Shaeffer’s Forays has been on a bit of self imposed leave due to such things as family vacations, the beach calling me, time on the golf course (note I didn’t say I was golfing), and just about any other summer activity you can imagine.


But, I’m back and over the last several weeks I’ve been keeping a file called Headlines where I keep copies of the headlines that reflect the changing nature of higher education and professional continuing education.  Here are a few examples:



These headlines demonstrate that higher education is an area of uncertainty.  On one hand, as states attempt to close funding gaps they are slashing support for their state colleges and universities, and on the other hand, states are looking to colleges and universities to stimulate their economy.  It is truly a time where institutions of higher education and our professional and continuing education units could simply hunker down and stay the course, offering true and tried programs OR this uncertainty can be the great opportunity to take risks and innovate our way towards solutions.  From my perspective, this time of uncertainty is an opportunity, an opportunity to experiment and demonstrate revolutionary leadership.


So what skills, knowledge, and approaches are needed to meet this leadership opportunity?  A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “The Wise Leader,” by Ikujiro Nonaka and Hiotaka Takeuchi, provides insights into how a wise leader should approach and think through this uncertainty.


-Wise leaders make decisions only after they figure out what is good for the organization and society

What strikes me about this approach is that good leaders ask not only what is good for the organization but also what is good for society.  Doing what is good for society creates a more sustainable approach.


-Wise leaders quickly grasp the essence of the challenge and communicate a vision that is meaningful.

The authors suggest that as leaders we “can grasp a problem” by practicing three “mind stretching routines.”  The first is relentlessly asking ourselves what is the basis of the problem: why, why, why?  The second is see the “forest and the trees at the same time.”  And the third is creating a hypothesis and then testing it.


-Wise leaders create shared contexts

As wise leaders we need the input of others, and one way we can best do that is to create formal and informal opportunities for information sharing.


-Wise leaders communicate the essence

There are challenges, the authors suggest, that are difficult to explain and as leaders we need to call on our ability to use stories and metaphors in explaining not only the challenge but also our response to the challenge.


-Wise leaders exercise political power

While it is important to grasp the problem and to effectively communicate the problem, effective leaders need to be “political” that is the ability to listen to others and synthesize this information and focus the organizations response.


-Wise leaders foster practical wisdom in others

The authors define this very well indicating that wisdom is not the preserve of the leader; good leaders “foster distributed leadership.”


As we all know being a leader is never easy and during this time of uncertainty providing effective leadership is even more challenging.  The authors end their article indicating that we must be many things at the same time: a philosopher, a master craftsman, an idealist, a politician, a novelist, and a teacher.



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