Years ago, I asked a hiring manager what she looked for in experienced hires. It wasn’t technical or management skills. She said it was “wisdom.” I asked her to define what she meant, but she really couldn’t. To her, it was that certain je ne sais quoi that sets some employees apart.
I’ve recalled that conversation many times over my career in hopes that I could one day understand where her instinct came from. I recently came across a concept that might just do it. It’s called “wise mind.”
The Wise Mind
There’s a concept in Dialectical Behavior Therapy that there are three types of mental states that describe our actions. Of these, there are two primary minds.
- Reasonable Mind: an intellectual, logical approach to interactions with people and the world.
- Emotional Mind: thinking and behavior are driven by intense feelings.
We tend to default to one or the other. If you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, this is the idea of Thinking (T) or Feeling (F). I’m a T by nature. I default to my reasonable mind – I think about the principle first and people second. Those who are Fs default to their Emotional Mind. They put people first and principles second.
The space between these two ways of thinking is your Wise Mind. The ability to blend rational thought with emotional support and understanding, with one leading the other based on the context of the situation, produces a powerful intuition. You might describe this as a “gut feeling.”
This, I believe, is wisdom.
Wisdom in the Workplace
Looking back, the first person I worked for in the government led with his wise mind. I know today (because he’s since told me) that my bias towards rational thinking frustrated him. I was young, cocky and unable to see the nuance of his decision making. It really bothered me when he made decisions that seemed irrational because he often made very logical decisions. To me, he seemed inconsistent.
What I was experiencing, however, was him moving between his reasonable and emotional minds with an ease he developed over many years. Not surprisingly, everyone described him as wise. He saw things others didn’t because he was able to take time to slow down and think things through, especially in stressful situations. Even now, I work to emulate his leadership style.
The Value of Wise-Mind Leadership
The benefits to the organization of this kind of thinking are huge.
Too often, organizations charge off to solve problems without fully considering all factors. There might be a rush to bring a new product to market or a need to show action. They are leading with their emotional mind.
In his book Originals, Adam Grant shows that these first, fast movers usually don’t enjoy lasting success. He claims that first-movers are risk-takers. They make impulsive (emotional mind) decisions and often fail because they move too fast, like making investments the market can’t handle. The second or third to market ends up dominating because they have the patience to watch and learn.
Other times, organizations are paralyzed by a problem and unable to act. They may overanalyze the situation, seek too much input or rationalize a reason to stick with the status quo. They are leading with their reasonable mind and opportunities are lost.
Such was the case with Blockbuster Video. The company passed on a chance to buy Netflix for $50 million in 2000. (Netflix now has a market cap of $150 billion.) Then, in 2004, Blockbuster attempted to build a streaming service to compete with Netflix. However, politics and a lack of leadership killed the project and reverted it to legacy models. You know the rest; Blockbuster went bankrupt in 2013.
How to Develop Your Wise Mind
Wise-mind leaders pick the right way to engage at the right time. They are able to shift the organization from action to consideration and back with a fluidity that creates opportunity and value.
While we often ascribe wisdom to those with more experience, there’s no reason we can’t all be “wise beyond our years.” The ability to lead with your wise mind is something we can all develop through practice and training.
Here are some tips to get you started.
- Put your phone away (after you finish reading this blog). Pay attention to your surroundings and feelings. Be Present.
- Practice breathing in and out gently. Focus on your breath. Try this for just a few minutes every day. Notice the calm that emerges when you quiet your mind. This is the feeling of the wise mind.
- When things seem out of control, slow down. Think about how to respond to a situation rather than reacting to it. The difference is subtle but, when you are able to do this, suddenly the challenge you are dealing with seems different and new opportunities emerge.
These are basic concepts of a mindfulness practice that will transform your thoughts and refocus your attention. While common sense, it takes practice and self-awareness to live and lead with your wise mind. However, the work is worth it and will help you become more strategic, innovative and influential. It will pay dividends in your personal life too.
We can all do this. As the wisest of Jedi, Master Yoda, would say, “Within your reach, wisdom is.”
You might also like Humility as a Path to Wisdom and Eightfold Path to Public Service Enlightenment: Wisdom.
Jonathan Alboum is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.
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