The Prudent Leader

This past weekend at the SCL Arete Retreat, our time together focused on prudent leadership. As leaders, being skilled and knowledgeable will only get you so far. The heart of leadership is being able to exercise thoughtful judgment in ambiguous, complex situations. However, the temptation for leaders is to minimize complexity by taking shortcuts, imposing rules or policies, or approaching issues in a reductionistic way. We would often rather hack our way to a solution rather than do the work that prudence requires.

The art of practical wisdom (prudence or phronesis), is doing the right thing in the right way for the right reason. A phronetic approach to leading and living gives full weight to the ethical tensions, past experiences, emotions, intuition, context, and relational dynamics at play in any given scenario. Prudent leaders do not apply overly rationalistic analyses to problems that are not conducive to formulaic solutions. 

The best leaders have what Kahneman calls a “heuristic gift” – the ability to first intuitively assess a situation and immediately discern the most salient issues involved. They can then imaginatively deliberate and find a path that is wise and prudent. In fact, some researchers argue the ability to synthesize Level 1 (intuitive, “fast”) with Level 2 (deliberative, “slow”) thinking is what comprises the essence of emotional intelligence.

Aristotle said, “Virtue makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means.” Prudent leaders are more like jazz musicians and less like brick layers. They know what they are aiming for, have the requisite skills to play the technical elements they encounter, but more importantly, they possess the sensibilities to adapt to a dynamic environment. This is prudent leadership.

Musing on G.K. Chesterton

In his famous article, All Things Considered, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” Chesterton’s life was an adventure, rightly considered. He did not see life as an accident or an inconvenience, but an immeasurable gift. Because he lived his life with a profound gratitude, Chesterton knew how to laugh and engage the world with a humility and grace.

Ian Ker wrote, “The unfailing humor that was so significant an aspect of Chesterton’s personal life has its parallels in the enormous importance he attached in his writings to humor as a medium for comprehending and interpreting life… One can, without exaggeration, find in Chesterton a mini-philosophy, not to say a mini-theology, of laughter.” If you have read him at all, you know that his humor is a natural and winsome part of his personality. Our world is in desperate need of those who can imitate his example. We need to be able to take ideas seriously without taking ourselves too seriously.

A few insights and quips…
Chesterton said, “An art school is a place where about three people work with feverish energy and everybody else idles to a degree that I should have conceived unattainable by human nature.”

In regards to his size (6’4, 320 lbs.)
“I suppose I enjoy myself more than most other people, because there’s such a lot of me having a good time.”

Once, when walking down the street during WWI, Chesterton was confronted by a patriot who inquired as to why he was not out at the front. He wittily replied, “ma’m, if you will come around this way, you will see that I am.”

Question at a lecture:
“What are your thoughts on hell?” He quipped, “I regard it as a thing to be avoided.”

Other funny quotes:
“The modern world is a crowd of very rapid-racing cars all brought to a standstill and stuck in a block of traffic.”

“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”

“A woman uses her intelligence to find reasons to support her intuition.”

“Education is the period during which you are being instructed by somebody you do not know, about something you do not want to know.”