Leadership Development Program

Do Wise Leaders Even Matter?

It’s something we’ve been thinking about for the last twenty years.

In our work with Fortune 50 companies, nonprofits, and emerging businesses, we’ve seen plenty of “smart” people get reasonably far. They were masters of strategy. They could maximize profits and minimize risks, and they knew their fields inside out. They had the “outer smarts” to be reasonably successful.

But we always suspected that to reach their full potential, these leaders needed something more. Yes, outer smarts were important, but inner wisdom was much more valuable and rare.

So we made it our mission to cultivate wisdom. Wisdom, as we defined it, was all about how leaders engaged with the people around them — how well they mastered the “human side” of leadership. We vowed to help organizations develop people who were wiser communicators, more capable connectors, and warmer, more generous leaders.

We always knew this work was important, and now the research is backing us up.

Do wiser leaders matter? Yes, absolutely. Here are three things that wise leaders do, and why it matters.

1. Wise Leaders are Engaged Communicators.

First, wise leaders are great communicators. They engage in more sophisticated communication than simple “hearing” and “talking,” and this puts their entire team ahead of the pack.

According to extraordinary research by MIT’s Alex Pentland, a team’s communication patterns are the most important predictor of its success—more so than “individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions, combined.”

But communication isn’t just about talking. It’s a subtle exchange of ideas and energy, a nuanced give and take. Strong communicators are engaged communicators. They make sure all group members are involved in the discussion, not just those with the strongest vocal chords. And they don’t just focus on being heard, they focus on hearing—especially the things that go unsaid. In short, they bring people together and bring out valuable contributions from everyone in the room.

As Pentland puts it, “Teams that have clusters of members who engage in high-energy communication while other members do not participate don’t perform as well. When we observed teams making investment decisions, for instance, the partially engaged teams made worse (less profitable) decisions than fully engaged teams.”

2. Wise Leaders are Great Connectors.

A hallmark of wise leaders is their ability to build connections beyond their immediate division, region, or realm of expertise. By fostering diverse relationships that transcend the usual borders, they are able to unearth valuable new ideas, insights, and opportunities.

Alex Pentland’s research, once again, sheds light on this aspect of leadership. His studies showed that individuals on high-performing teams seek out more outside connections than individuals on less-successful teams.

Furthermore, the most successful and creative team members seek “fresh perspectives constantly, from all other groups in (and some outside) the organization.”

But that’s not all: with their wide web of connections, these leaders can be powerful change agents within their organizations. Organizational change is difficult, and employees tend to oppose change initiatives that threaten to topple the status quo. Because of this, most leaders fail to establish significant organizational change. But that doesn’t hold true for leaders who are well-connected.

When Harvard Business School professor Julie Battilana and University of Toronto professor Tiziana Casciaro tracked 68 change initiatives over the course of a year, they discovered that for the most successful change agents, “personal networks—their relationships with colleagues—were critical. People who bridged disconnected groups and individuals were more effective at implementing dramatic reforms.”

As Battilana and Casciaro put it, “Formal authority may give you the illusion of power, but informal networks always matter, whether you are the boss or a middle manager.”

3. Wiser Leaders are Warm.

Finally, the most successful leaders understand how to project both wisdom and warmth. And while hard skills may be important, warmth counts for a lot.

One study of nearly 52,000 leaders found that only about one in 2,000 managers who were “strongly disliked” were also considered “good leaders.”

As Amy Cuddy, Harvard Business School professor and social psychologist puts it, “Warmth is the conduit of influence. Even a few small nonverbal signals—a nod, a smile, an open gesture—can show people that you’re pleased to be in their company and attentive to their concerns. Prioritizing warmth helps you connect immediately with those around you, demonstrating that you hear them, understand them, and can be trusted by them.”

The best leaders consciously cultivate warmth because they understand how important it is in building genuine connections with others. And connections, as we know, are crucial.

Westwood International: Cultivating Wisdom in Leadership

The newest research into the “human side” of leadership gives us insight into just how valuable wisdom really is. It’s why we pour so much of our energy into helping our clients turn their already smart leaders into leaders who are truly wise. By working with us, they are investing in one of the rarest and most powerful resources on earth: wisdom.