Smart, Yes; Wise, Well?

By Guest Blogger, Lee Meadows, PhD

We have the bell curve to thank for providing a way of explaining how the majority of us are just smart enough to not stick our head in a ringing bell, but not quite smart enough to explain how the bell was created. While it has, historically, not been the sole reason why the distinction between smart and sitting-in-the-back-row-to-avoid-being-asked-the-question is so pronounced, the aura of ‘smart’ has provided some amusing interpretations that, when played out, offer insight as to why certain landmines are, repeatedly, exploded across the organizational landscape. A progressive society needs ‘smart’ as a beacon in a dark tunnel on a jagged path in which the balance of a cautious right step and an unruly left step don’t cancel the ability to move forward. We need ‘smart’ to counter the innate reliance on opinioned sound bites that are rooted in the terror of ‘thinking’. However, ‘smart’ is often used as the first indication of what we identify as successful. There is a reason why winning the international spelling bee competition has, rarely, made for a clear path to the ‘C’ suite.

The recruitment of ‘smart’ has taken on a different tone in a business world where competition for talented resources has tipped the scales to be reflective of a ‘smart’ group of employees who are, extremely, skilled at quickly accessing information, skimming through the content and regurgitating, by way of an 18-minute bullet point TEDtalk, ideas and solutions that did not originate from any cell located in the polar extremes of their mind. How many times has a meeting been prolonged because the ‘smart’ employees have added idea after, Googled, idea in an effort to be perceived as the one who knows what they are talking about, when upon simple analysis, it is clear that they are ‘smart’ in their ability to cite an idea, but not very thoughtful in how to make it work. Often times the error occurs when we are attracted to the citing of the idea without asking the follow up, focused, question on how it would work.  Consequently, in a globally competitive environment, there can be far too many promotions and assignments given based on the ability to articulate ‘smart’ and not the wisdom that comes from knowing. When the ‘smartest’ people in the room are in competition with the ‘knowing’ people in the room, knowing will win 90% of the time. You can look it up!

So, how do smart people become wise and how does wisdom become promotable? Most organizations are designed with the idea of accomplishing something, whether it is to make a profit difference or a social difference. Something has to result from the collective efforts of tasks, rules, cultures, procedures and missions. It is in that collective experience that we gain the necessary insight to determine who can walk on water and who is floating in a tide of turbulence. When ‘smart’ is progressing toward wisdom, there is a pattern of ‘doing’ that is visible and an application of ‘smart’ that is reliable. It is the integration of ‘citing’, ‘thinking’ ‘focusing’ and ‘doing’ that allows ‘smart’ to build a bridge toward wisdom and serve the needs of the organization in ways that transcend unhealthy and highly motivated self-interests. The smart part of the equation can, also, be a process to cutting behavioral corners in an attempt to gain more without giving more. Somewhere along the path the fact that someone is more smart and less wise is reflected in the narrowly defined decisions that have broad implications for achieving successful organizational outcomes.

It is hard to argue the fact that being born ‘smart’ is a good starting point in which to craft out a successful life, but in the end the wisdom comes from being smart enough to know that you don’t know everything, but you are wise enough to do things that make you smart.