Smart or Wise? How Conversations Can Create Culture

By Robert E. Quinn

Most senior authority figures tend to be smart, but not all of them are wise. Wisdom often comes with experience, and experiences often change a person’s natural assumptions.

A financially focused and hard-driving CEO told me about a young employee who had made a mistake and lost his company some money. The young man visited the CEO to discuss what happened. As he spoke, the CEO sat quietly, listened to every word, and then asked if there were anything else. When the young man was clearly finished, the CEO thanked him for the visit, reassured him, and sent him on his way.

After telling me this story, the CEO asked a question: “Do you think that was my instinctual response?” In fact, it had not been: His natural reaction was to become highly exercisedto jump all over anyone who makes a mistake. Why hadn’t he taken his usual path?Over time, this CEO said, he had learned something counterintuitive. If he followed his natural instincts, he would get the short-term reward of asserting his authority and venting his frustrations. And, it might seem, he would have corrected the problem or at least placed blame squarely where it belonged.

But in doing so, he would reap a long-term outcome that would create a much bigger problem: a closed culture in which truth will not speak to power. In such a culture, a culture of fear, the CEO will eventually be cut off from reality and unable to lead powerfully.

The thing is, a CEO never has a conversation with just one person. Reactions, interactions, and even nonverbal responses send signals that extend far beyond a single exchange. Every conversation is thus a building block of the organizational culture. A conversation with one is a conversation with all.

Every time people with authority hold a conversation, they are orienting their colleagues and delineating their corporate culture’s rules and expectations. The organization has either a culture of trust or a culture of fearand information flows accordingly.

Because this man wants “truth” to speak to “power”not “power” to dictate “truth”he learned to overcome his natural inclinations toward power dictating to those who might otherwise speak truth. He is creating a culture where truth is more important than power. In that culture, colleagues can learn their way to the creation of their organizational future.

Wisdomthe wisdom to pause, to listen, to acknowledge, to reassure, and to move forwardmay run counter to your assumptions about powerful leadership, especially in times of crisis.

You’re smart. That’s part of what got you where you are. But are you also wise?