Conceiving a breakthrough product or navigating administrative entanglements is exponentially more difficult when you—and your staff—are distracted by what feels like the fourth disturbing news brief of the day. But, according to Krista Tippett, a Peabody Award–winning public radio host and author of Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living, there’s a way to offer stability and foresight in the face of uncertainty. It’s a subject she’s covered widely in On Being, the radio show on which she has discussed such topics as the intricacies of evil, forgiveness, and prayer with Elie Wiesel and cultivating courage from struggle with Brené Brown. Tippett’s time studying visionaries has convinced her that wisdom, though often considered elusive, is actually quite attainable. “Wisdom is not a possession you can point to as much as it is a way that a life has of imprinting the lives around it,” she says. “If we think about the wisest people we’ve known, it’s how they affect others, how they change others, calm others, ground others.” Here are her five truths for leading with insight.
Tippett says that, in recent years, our language has become increasingly caustic, sarcastic, and threatening. But tempering that kind of expression by being overly polite isn’t going to help you problem solve. Rather, approach difficult conversations with a basis of civility and an openness to disagreement. When faced with conflict, Tippett advises avoiding framing discussions as debates—“Do you believe this or that?”—and instead considering what is at stake for the overall group or company. Asking such questions as “What do we all care about?” and “How can we find solutions that address those shared concerns?” promotes unity and inclusiveness, she says.
Tippett points to Bill George, who spent a decade as CEO of the medical device maker Medtronic (and is now a professor at Harvard Business School), as a prime example of a sage leader. It’s easy to see how someone running a company with a mission of saving lives could readily convince employees that what they do matters. But George didn’t just focus on his company’s end product. He also attached importance to the environment in which the products were made. “The truth is that this is as much a struggle for mission-driven nonprofits as it is for the most profit-oriented businesses,” says Tippett. “Just because you have a great mission doesn’t mean that you have wise leadership or an organization that’s infused with [institutional] character.” Effective managers can create a greater sense of purpose for their employees, in “the process and the culture and the ethos” that go into the end product.
Historically, workers checked their personal convictions at the door. That’s changing, and Tippett says it’s important to recognize that people bring their “whole selves” to work. “A hallmark of wisdom is an acknowledgment of the fullness and complexity of what it means to be human,” she says. While the office still isn’t the best place for a political rally, leaders shouldn’t pretend like everything is normal when there’s discord in the world. “Speak the truth. Say, ‘We’re all a little unsettled right now,’ ” says Tippett. “Offer ways everyone can be together with their particular differences, not denying it but grappling with it. We have to come up with new forums for figuring out how to navigate this in our workplaces. It isn’t optional anymore.”
Humiliation and fear are poor motivators—something good bosses keep in mind when holding employees accountable for their performance. When pointing out a mistake or need for improvement, default to a kind word, generous act, or attempt at better understanding. If your words elicit a strong response from an employee, be curious rather than reactive, and try to understand how he or she might interpret what you’re saying. Don’t “assume [their] language is loaded down with the things it carries in your imagination,” says Tippett. “It rarely is.” And when someone does something well, don’t assume they know it—tell them. Feeling appreciated, Tippett says, is one of the most effective motivators.
The fallout from an unpopular decision can weigh on your mind long after the company has moved on. Tippett says it’s important to be comfortable showing vulnerability, something she learned when she spun off On Being from American Public Media into its own production company. Hiring missteps and the pressures of growing her enterprise made her feel lonely. Her mentors assured her that what she was experiencing were necessary growing pains. “Sometimes we get wise not by learning new things, but by recovering old things we knew and then forgot,” she says—like the fact that you’re allowed to make mistakes, even when you’re in charge. The willingness to show weakness is crucial to the humanity of an organization. “Tenderness and power actually do go together,” says Tippett. “That’s the real learning curve ahead.”