Wisdom vs intelligence

Jul 31 2015 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

The renowned 19th century preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, observed: "Wisdom is the right use of knowledge. To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal, and are all the greater fools for it. There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom."

Businesses continue to face challenging times. In this uncertainty, some leaders have lost their way due to egregious moral and ethical missteps. Others have reached career dead ends due to their inability to see the big picture from a higher not-so-common perspective. Many of these leaders are undoubtedly intelligent. But they're not wise.

Being of "two minds"

Our minds work on a lower and higher level. The lower level deals with the concrete - our immediate physical environment, information, facts and logic. Our lower mind supports us to be aware, conceptual and reflective.

Our lower mind is rational, analytical, opinionated, busy and often sceptical. It is bound by time and space. We use our lower mind to make sense of our complicated and emotional world. The lower mind is the stuff of business schools, "operations-focused" education and experiential learning.

"Wisdom is what's left after we've run out of personal opinions." - Cullen Hightower

The lower mind delivers reductionist thinking and mechanistic, conventional approaches to life. The main drawback of living in the lower mind is that it only reflects your internal map of reality. It is like being stuck in your own intellectual zip code, never moving beyond your nine-digit thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, expectations and world views. It is like living in one town, knowing it completely, and never venturing outside the borders of that town.

Intelligent people are generally engaged with their lower mind and left-brain thinking. The lower mind focuses on one corner of the painting. Wisdom does not arise from this place.

The higher mind considers the abstract. It involves intuition, aspiration, heart, soul and spirit and connects with the Universal mind, with Universal truth, with beauty and with goodness. Our higher mind speaks in the language of ideas, ideals, symbols, principles and impulses. It is loving. It guides us to the truth.

The higher mind sees the threads woven between the mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological and social aspects of our life. The higher mind sees the entire painting - the place from which wisdom arises.

"Our own physical body possesses a wisdom which we who inhabit the body lack." - Henry Miller

The qualities of a wisdom mind

Wise leaders access both their lower and higher minds. Wise leaders understand they are spiritual beings living in a human form. They allow their lower minds to access their higher, helping them to access intuition and impressions that provide insights into the bigger picture of life.

Wise leaders understand the importance of focus, presence, self-discipline, meditation, study, loving service and creative expression. They seek to grasp the next higher level of awareness. They venture outside their historical map of reality - willing to jettison their old, "safe" beliefs, assumptions, expectations and worldviews - to explore the possible and the unknown. They're open to knowing what they don't know.

Wise leaders understand that spiritual and personal growth means connecting with higher concepts and energies, be they values, ideas, ideals, potentials, archetypes, higher guidance or intuition. The wise leader develops the capacity to not only connect with these higher concepts, but also to seek to ground them into forms, tasks, projects, relationships and details that inform the way they lead.

Wise leaders don't stop with experience, but transcend experience - both their own and others' - in a way that they spend an appreciative amount of time and energy in deep self-reflection and thoughtful consideration around their experience, leading to higher insights, enhanced value and a deeper sense of self-awareness.

"We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us." - Marcel Proust

Wise leadership is not about having experiences but consciously learning from those experiences. The process of learning from experience leads to a process of inquiry - looking with curiosity, not judgment, into the who, what, when, where, how and - most importantly - the why of their experiences. Inquiry is a matter of punctuation; it's about question marks, not full stops. It is about curiosity.

Wise leaders understand how connections between diverse elements can create something new. They are adept at using analogy and metaphor and seek to recognize patterns, spot trends, draw connections and discern the big picture even when there seem to be nothing there.

A wise leader interacts with her world in terms of a richer and more varied spectrum of possibilities and opportunities. A wise leader understands the importance of relationships - human and otherwise. A wise leader is a systems thinker, a gestalt thinker, a holistic thinker. Wise leaders are comfortable being oriented to their right brain, as well as to their heart and soul.

Inquiry, for the wise leader, is not about "futurizing the past" - using their past experiences, the known, the tried and true - to explain present experiences that are un-common, un-usual, un-familiar. They understand that inquiry involves delving deeply into the self, even parts of the self that, heretofore, might have been unknown, in order to search for new insights, perspectives and understanding - seeking familiarity with the unknown.

"To make no mistakes is not in the power of man; but from their errors and mistakes the wise and good learn wisdom for the future." - Plutarch

For wise leaders, inquiry means creating an internal space unencumbered by old thoughts, beliefs and premises - a new, clear, inviting and open space - entering into a fresh realm without preconception or expectation and being informed with new learning, new sense, new meaning, new WHYs and new HOWs. In other words, new wisdom.

Many intelligent leaders aren't even aware that they lack wisdom. Here are some indications to help them see where there's room for wisdom-making:

  • They are task-oriented and focused on short-term gains. They see the corner of the painting but often fail to step back and view the painting from 25 miles out - the painting being their respective business and their respective profession/industry.
  • They choose to limit alternatives when engaged in analysis. They fear ambiguity or other's opinions and are closed to myriad possibilities and perspectives; they fear the unknown and taking risks. They buckle under stress and tend to back away from challenges.
  • They are linear thinkers and feel they must be rational and logical. They are unable or unwilling to allow their "gut" or intuition to inform their decision-making process.
  • They can't or won't act "for the common good" when they are faced with conflict between multiple parties or priorities. They refuse to consider "right action" or the well-being of the group, team or community in favor of relying on the conventional perspective or their own personal goals.
    Some questions for self-reflection
    • Would you characterize yourself as largely "left-brained?" What would others say about you?
    • Do you consider yourself "emotionally intelligent?" What would your close friends or co-workers say?
    • Is your organization using its "higher mind" as it considers strategies to deal with future challenges?
    • Do you consider your leaders to be "wise?" How about you?
    • How often do you take time to seriously reflect on your life's experiences?
    • Would you say you are a "task-oriented" or "people-oriented" person? Would others agree?
    • Would you generally rather be right or happy? Why?
    • How do you deal with the unknown?
    • Can you envision a world at work where people are regularly encouraged to take time out for meditation and self-reflection?

  • They have no deep sense of self-awareness, and lack spiritual and emotional intelligence. They focus on their strengths, deny their weaknesses and never allow their emotions to surface.
  • They lack a people-orientation. They can't be bothered making an effort to see others from a personal (as opposed to a functional) perspective. They don't know how to, or are unwilling to, deal with others' emotions, or emotional well-being. Relationship building is not their forte, by choice.
  • They lack harmony - there is no alignment or congruence between what they think, feel, say and do.

"Not by age but by capacity is wisdom acquired. Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" - T. S. Eliot

When we reflect and contemplate from a deeper level, when we choose to "go inside" and honestly, sincerely and self-responsibly ask ourselves if our stories are true, we are using our higher mind and engaging the wisdom of our heart and soul. Relying on our heart and soul's inner wisdom and intelligence opens us up to new ways of seeing, do-ing and be-ing - discovering and exploring new territory and new maps of reality, new zip codes - supporting us to understand and deal with today's uncommon challenges in new ways.

Using one's higher mind is what will support today's intelligent leaders to become tomorrow's wise leaders.

more articles

About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.