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.