Wisdom in Action

Christopher Witt —  June 12, 2012

What we need now, more than ever, are leaders—in politics, business, nonprofits, and religious communities—who are prudent.

Prudence is an old-fashioned word. You don’t hear it often these days, but the need for it couldn’t be timelier.

Prudence is, according to classical Greek philosophers, “wisdom in action.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “wisdom in handling practical matters; good judgment or common sense.” As synonyms, it lists “discretion, foresight, forethought, and circumspection.”

Leaders need prudence if they are to lead well. And speakers need it too.

Prudence has three characteristics: understanding, judgment, and discernment.

  • Understanding is the search for meaning.
    We have endless access to information—to data, details, facts and figures, charts and graphs, metrics—but we are often lacking in understanding. We don’t know what it all adds up to. Which details are important? Which are irrelevant? How do the pieces fit together? What is the cause and what are the effects?  How do we interpret—i.e., how do we give meaning—to all the information we have at hand?

For speakers preparing a presentation, whether they’re leaders or not, meaning is the first order of business. They have to explain to their audience as simply and clearly as possible the issue, situation, or problem that they’re addressing. Many experts fail to do so, out of the mistaken assumption that everyone already understands it. Set forth your information. Say what it means. Define your terms. Check to make sure you’ve made yourself understood.

  • Judgment is the assessment of worth or, to use a more business-friendly word, of impact.
    Once we’ve understood a thing, an event, or a trend, we have to weigh its value. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? A threat or an opportunity? A matter of importance or an insignificant blip? Who are the people most affected by it? How are they affected?

Speakers also have to address the impact both of the problem they’re addressing and of the solution they’re proposing. If there is no impact, one way or another, there’s really no reason to be giving a presentation.

  • Discernment is about deciding what to do.
    Taking action—the right action, at least—is what prudence is all about. It’s all well and good to understand a matter and to assess it, but in the end we have to do something. (Not doing something is, of course, doing something…as long as it is a conscious choice). What are the options? What are their relative strengths and weaknesses? What are their possible consequences and side-effects? What are the tradeoffs? Given the lack of absolute certainty, which is the best choice?

Speakers also must make a recommendation. They can offer two or three options (no more). And, if they have any sort of authority, they should be prepared to recommend one over the others.

Imagine how many problems we’d avoid and how many insipid presentations we’d be spared, it leaders and presenters alike exercised a little more prudence.

What do you think? Is prudence too old-fashioned of a word and concept? Should it be assigned to the trash heap? Or is it something worth cultivating? And, if so, how would you suggest doing so?

Photo courtesy of winnifredxoxo at flickr.com.

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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.

3 responses to Wisdom in Action

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