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Leadership & Organisations - BLOG

Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught

Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, INSEAD Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development & Organisational Change |

In the pursuit of wisdom, executives may find themselves taking off their masks to become truly authentic and reflective leaders.

“I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only make them think.” - Socrates

The day after becoming the CEO of a company facing turbulent times, David had a dream. In it, while walking on a beach he discovered a bottle. On opening, a genie appeared offering him a wish in exchange for her freedom. Eschewing riches, fame or a long life, David opted for the one thing he knew he needed to help him guide his people in the best way possible. He chose the gift of wisdom.

In today’s hyperactive digital age, attaining wisdom is a challenge. With tablets and phones and their various apps constantly vying for our immediate attention, it is increasingly difficult to find the time and mental space for making meaningful connections or engaging in the deep conversations, reflection, emotional awareness, empathy and compassion, necessary in its pursuit.

Indeed, it is an unfortunate fact for many leaders in David’s position, that while wisdom requires education, education does not necessarily make people wise. As Professor Charles Gragg noted in his classic case study Because Wisdom Can't Be Told, the mere act of listening to wise statements and sound advice doesn’t necessarily ensure the transfer of wisdom.

What does it mean to be wise?

People often equate wisdom with intelligence or being knowledgeable; but all too often, it becomes apparent that being intelligent and being wise are quite different things. The world is full of brilliant people who intellectualise without really understanding the essence of things. In contrast, wise people try to grasp the deeper meaning of what is known and strive to better understand the limits of their knowledge.

Wisdom implies more than merely being able to process information in a logical way. Knowledge becomes wisdom when we have the ability to assimilate and apply this knowledge to make the right decisions. As the saying goes, ‘knowledge speaks but wisdom listens’. Wise people are blessed with good judgement. In addition, they possess the qualities of sincerity and authenticity, the former implying a willingness to say what you mean, the latter to be what you are.

Wise people are also humble; their humility deriving from a willingness to recognise the limitations of their knowledge. They accept that there are things they will never know. By accepting their ignorance, they are better prepared to bear their own fallibility. People who are wise know when what they are doing makes sense, but also when it will not be good enough. Ironically, it is exactly this kind of self-knowledge that pushes them to do something about it.

Wisdom can be looked at from both a cognitive and emotional perspective. Cognitively, wise people have the ability to see the big picture. They are able to put things in perspective; to rise above their personal viewpoint and observe a situation from many different angles (thus avoiding simplistic black-and-white thinking). From an emotional perspective, people acknowledged for their wisdom are reflective, introspective and tolerant of ambiguity. They know how to manage negative emotions, and possess both empathy and compassion; qualities that differentiate them in an interpersonal context.

Ironically, what makes wisdom more important than success and riches is that it enables us to live well. Our mental and physical health flourishes when we are congruent with our beliefs and values. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” Wise people are attuned to what constitutes a meaningful life. They know how to plan for and manage such a life. This implies self-concordance, behaving consistently with their values, a journey that requires self-exploration, self-knowledge and self-responsibility.

Age doesn’t make us wiser

So, how can we acquire wisdom and can we expedite its acquisition? Becoming wise is a very personal quest. It is only through our own experiences, learning how to cope with the major tragedies and dilemmas embedded within life’s journey, that we will discover our own capacities and learn how to create wisdom.

Setbacks are memorable growth experiences contributing to a deeper understanding of the vicissitudes of life. Overcoming difficult situations contributes to an increased appreciation of life and the recognition of new possibilities. These experiences enable us to rise above our own perspectives and see things as they are.

Unfortunately, wisdom is not something that automatically comes with the passing of years. While older people may be more capable than their younger counterparts, many never put their life experiences to good use. To acquire the required sense of reflectivity may necessitate the help of others. Educators, coaches, psychotherapists and mentors can play a significant role, not only by assisting with the dissemination of knowledge but by helping those searching for wisdom work through challenging experiences and encouraging them to work on emotional awareness, emotional self-regulation, relational skills and mindfulness.

A number of specific steps can be taken to expedite the road to wisdom. In my work with executives I have found that creating a learning community in which participants have the opportunity to tell their stories, not only has a cathartic effect but also helps wisdom come to bear. While written case studies can be helpful, life case studies narrated by participants have a much more dramatic, emotional impact. Telling and listening to personal stories is a starting point for a deeper understanding of oneself and others, and helps participants learn to hear what’s not being said.

Wisdom and authenticity

A learning community is also a great place to practice open-mindedness. Encouraging participants to step out of their comfort zone and to deal with people who are very different from themselves, leads to a deeper understanding and acceptance of the ambiguous nature of things. If designed in a holistic manner, these communities are a great exercise in humility, giving participants a better awareness of their limitations as well as a greater ability to integrate their knowledge and experiences when dealing with the challenges ahead.

In their pursuit of wisdom, group members will be encouraged to learn from their mistakes, to think before acting and, by taking off their masks, to become more authentic in living their values.

Manfred Kets de Vries is the Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development & Organisational Change at INSEAD and the Raoul de Vitry d'Avaucourt Chaired Professor of Leadership Development, Emeritus. He is the Founder of INSEAD's Global Leadership Centre and the Programme Director of The Challenge of Leadership, one of INSEAD’s top Executive Development Programmes. His most recent books are: You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger: Executive Coaching Challenges; Telling Fairy Tales in the Boardroom: How to Make Sure Your Organization Lives Happily Ever After; and Riding the Leadership Rollercoaster: An Observer’s Guide.

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" As the saying goes, ‘knowledge speaks but wisdom listens’. Wise people are blessed with good judgement. In addition, they possess the qualities of sincerity and authenticity, the former implying a willingness to say what you mean, the latter to be what you are. "

" As Mahatma Gandhi once said, 'Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.' Wise people are attuned to what constitutes a meaningful life."

Congrats, Manfred, you were really inspired when you wrote this one !!

Ramy Ballout,

Professor, this was an absolute joy to read for me. Many in our community here in the Bay Area have tried to find a channel where we can all share these kinds of stories with one another - through podcasts, group meet ups, set time at schedule events, and blogging. I believe that "willingness" is the main driver of wisdom - in that we must be willing to accept our ignorance and our absent mindedness in our daily routines both for personal growth and to spark the chain of events that lead to wiser lifestyles. While wisdom itself is a relative term, open to interpretation of both its definition and applicability, the acknowledgment of "striving" for a higher sense of the understanding of self can be best initiated when a sense of a "purpose" driven lifestyle is adopted - thus the relevancy of Socrates in your opening in providing the opportunity for people to think as a starting point. Our daily distractions, financial and professional commitments add layers of hinderance to our quest for wisdom and in my humble student conclusion, it is the environment itself in which we nurture ourselves that can more fluidly put us in the "state" of readiness you indirectly allude to.

Guido Brandt Corstius,

Wisdom is like creativity, it can not be taught. We have to PAN for it like golden nuggets.
However we can TRAIN on Awareness and Stayingpower.(stamina)

For a better understanding of this we should use conceptual blending CB.It is not the linear thinking we have to use but a graphical description.
For wisdom we see a triangle with Awareness on top and Ability and Stayingpower in the downcorners.
Where we stand on this SURFACE defines our wisdom.

Chris Pehura,

I find that wisdom comes to those who interact with many, many people; people they feel comfortable with and people they don't. This builds wisdom at an accelerated rate.


your comment is insightful. i quiet agree with you


A great article Prof!. Wisdom is indeed by experience and exposure. Willingness can't be emphasized more. Very informative!.

HR reflective thinker,

An excellent article about wisdom & agree with it. It is also very inspiring.

Messias Uaissone,

I'm always afraid when I learn that an important skill or trait cannot be taught. At first, the danger is that thinking on impossibilities leads to inaction. If wisdom cannot be taught, then it is unnecessary to make efforts to teach or learn it. The question is: how, then, some people become wise? If you remove education as the channel for learning wisdom, you're left with unsustainable theories of natural gift or selection, luck, and other inconsistent arguments. The author seems to use the term "education" in a double sense, leading to a false conclusion. This is unavoidable: "while wisdom requires education, education does not necessarily make people wise" (third paragraph). The first use of the term "education" is the broader sense meaning exposure to ideas and challenge of the character to overcome oneself; however, the second reference of "education" is in a specific sense as transferring knowledge, or simply "telling" what and how to do things, as the author of the article clarifies immediately when he cites Prof. Gragg's case study. In a broader sense, education can be taught, but not told. Wisdom cannot be taught as in a recipe, a to-do list, or steps to follow to become wise. It involves processes of challenging our natural habits of following what pleases us to follow what is right, or in consistent terms, what pleases humanity as a rational gender. The author seems to put wisdom on the side of passive attitude when he says that "wise people are blessed". Who blesses the wise people? I would suggest to convey that wise people behave actively, challenging themselves in the way they make decisions for the best course of their enterprises.
Surprisingly enough, the author confesses at end of the article, that he is teaching wisdom to executives. Then, I learn that Prof. MK de Vries means that wisdom cannot be taught in traditional formats of teaching. But what he teaches to execs is wisdom, and he does that because he believes that wisdom can be taught. The detail is the format or methodology of teaching. But I hold tight - while I am ready to learn more convincing arguments - that wisdom can be taught.

Kaio Amaral,

This is sad, but i am fully convicted that deseducation is becoming a business in several countries. Brazil is one of them!

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