Leadership: Wisdom vs. Ignorance

Christopher Witt —  November 30, 2012

I’ve already expressed my opinion that the main attribute of a true leader is wisdom, specifically wisdom in action.

Wisdom knows the right thing to do, in the right way, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right reason. (No one has ever claimed that being wise is easy or, for that matter, common.)

The antithesis of wisdom is not foolishness, but ignorance — not knowing. That’s why leaders are always learning.

the main attribute of a leader is wisdom

There are many forms, many faces, of ignorance. These three types of ignorance are the most common and are, to varying degrees, harmful.

  • Ordinary Ignorance: We all start out uninformed and uneducated. And even with a great deal of education we remain ignorant of many, many things. (I, for one, couldn’t begin to explain string theory, the causes of the War of 1812, or music’s seven-note Diatonic scale.) This basic type of ignorance — ordinary ignorance — is only a problem when it affects us and how we interact with the world at large.

Children’s ignorance — not knowing that it’s rude to stare at people who are different, not knowing to look both ways before stepping into the street, not knowing how to read — doesn’t make them wrong or bad. It means that they have to learn. That’s the role of parents, families, schools, and society as a whole — to teach people what they need to know in order to function well in the world.

New hires are often ignorant of a company’s practices, procedures, and policies. That’s what employee orientation, training programs, and supervision are for. Even experienced professionals may become ignorant when they’re newly promoted. (In their former positions they knew that they needed to know in order to function well. In their new positions, they have to learn new skills and new knowledge sets.)

  • Culpable Ignorance: When we don’t know something that we should know, we’re culpably ignorant. If we’re going to drive, we should know that we need a license, how to safely operate the vehicle, and what the relevant laws are. 

Whether we remain ignorant through laziness and lack of effort or through conscious choice (through willful ignorance), we’re still responsible — culpable — for not knowing.  Ignorance of the law (and of many other things) — as they apply to us — is no excuse.

Certain oversights, errors of judgment, or violations of company policy might be understandable in a new hire, for example, but completely inexcusable in a director. (Maybe the new hire didn’t received the proper training or needs to be reminded. But the director should have known.)

  • Contrived Ignorance: Sometimes people make a conscious effort to avoid learning about matters that might make them responsible for doing something. They have reason to suspect that something’s not right “over there” (in someone else’s department, in the field, among subordinates), so they consciously steer clear of it. If they don’t know about it, they reason, they can’t be help liable for it: they don’t have to address it. That’s contrived ignorance.

Contrived ignorance allows people to live next to a concentration camp for years on end and not know what’s going on. Contrived ignorance lets a university president ignore reports of a coach’s sexual misconduct with minors. Contrived ignorance gets leaders and their organizations into a lot of trouble.

Why am I even addressing this topic in a blog about leadership and speeches? Because I believe that leaders speak to influence (to shape how people think and feel about issues that matter) and to inspire (to move them to be the best they can be). And to do that, they have to be wise. When leaders speak, it is their wisdom I long to hear.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.