The Wisdom of Sustainability

All intelligent leaders possess three basic skills, but wise leaders harness them for the common good.

“For all the virtues will be present when the one virtue, practical wisdom, is present." -Aristotle

“For all the virtues will be present when the one virtue, practical wisdom, is present.” -Aristotle

In the course of studying intelligence and wisdom during his long and distinguished career as a psychologist, Robert J. Sternberg discovered that all effective leaders have high levels of: 

  1. Creative ability – developing novel ideas and approaches
  2. Analytical ability – determining which of those ideas are worth pursuing
  3. Practical ability – persuading other people to buy-in to their ideas, leading to their successful implementation.

But he was troubled by the fact that having these abilities didn’t always correspond to good outcomes. While all notable leaders possessed these three qualities, the greatness of Churchill and FDR stood in stark contrast with the horrific harm done by Hitler and Stalin. What trait differentiates uplifting leaders from the rest, like Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Maathai, for example, from Sarah Palin? Or Ray Anderson of Interweave from Ken Lay of Enron?

Wisdom, Sternberg discovered, is the distinguishing virtue of those whom society has come to regard as great leaders.

In his book Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, Stephen S. Hall identifies what he calls the eight neural pillars of wisdom. Taken together, these qualities are the forces that help to nurture and guide a leader’s ability to create, analyze and put into practice those ideas that will be of greatest benefit to the greatest number of people.

These pillars also represent distinguishing characteristics of those individuals and organizations that are leading a transition to a more sustainable economy.

  1. Patience:  Delayed gratification and the ability to wait for larger, more meaningful rewards. Understanding that the results of actions ripen in varying degrees and often-unpredictable timescales that don’t conform to a schedule of quarterly targets.
  2. Moral judgment and reasoning:  Knowing right from wrong, and knowing how to skillfully be true to core values in ways that are situationally appropriate vs. rigidly dogmatic.
  3. Compassion:  Feeling the suffering of others with a deep motivation to alleviate it.
  4. Emotional self-control and regulation:  Cultivating a deep sense of equanimity so that one is not easily seduced by transitory desires, praise, blame, success, failure or anger.
  5. Altruism:  Selfless concern for the well being of others; compassion in action.
  6. Knowing what’s important:  Instead of humans being treated as the rational profit maximizing consumers or units of production as portrayed by neo classical economics, people are treated as moral beings whose happiness is derived from loving relationships, doing meaningful work and having their basic needs met. Generating profit is a means rather than an end in itself – a means to enhancing shared prosperity and wellbeing.
  7. Humility: Knowing that one’s vantage point is just one perspective among many while receiving additional information and opinions with a “beginner’s mind” of open receptivity.
  8. Dealing with uncertainty:  Skillfully engaging with the world as a web of inter-related complex non-linear systems with unpredictable emergent qualities rather than as linear systems that are predictable and controllable.

As a society and as a business community, we place a high value on creativity, analytical ability and being able to implement new ideas and bring them to scale. And while all of these qualities are critical in cultivating a systemic shift to an economic model that integrates values of social and environmental responsibility, they will only be effective if they are guided by, and grounded within the virtue of wisdom.

Sustainable businesses create shared value vs. exploiting the many for the benefit of the few. Sustainable businesses create products and services in ways that maintain the Earth’s regenerative capacity vs. degrading the commons upon which all life depends.  Sustainable business is inherently wisdom-based since it harnesses all of the creative, technical and organizational skills necessary for success in ways that serve the common good.

Three final thoughts

  1. Who are the wisest people in my life that I would most like to emulate?
  2. In what ways can I more intentionally study and cultivate wisdom?
  3. How can I more consciously integrate wisdom into my work and lifestyle?





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