Wise Business Leaders: Who’s On Your List?

In my discussions with friends and colleagues about executive wisdom, I’ve come to realize how idiosyncratic our views of wisdom are. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then wisdom is even more so. Ask any of your people who their top five wise leaders are, you’ll likely get a wide variety of answers.

A few years ago, psychologists in Canada conducted a study in which they asked people to nominate the top wise people of all time, dead or alive. Here’s their list in order of popularity:

  • Gandhi
  • Confucius
  • Jesus Christ
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Socrates
  • Mother Teresa
  • Solomon
  • Buddha
  • The Pope
  • Oprah Winfey
  • Winston Churchill
  • The Dalai Lama
  • Ann Landers
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Queen Elizabeth II

You’ll agree with some of these names and probably be surprised by others on this list. Who’s on your list of all-time wise people? I invite you to create your own list and discuss it with family or colleagues: it makes for a fascinating discussion.

And I challenge you to have the same discussion about top business leaders, again, historical or current. Who’s on your list of great executives for the “Business Wisdom Hall of Fame?”

Of course, as soon as you start thinking about who you’d nominate as a particularly wise CEO, you’ll realize how important it is to have a working definition of what exactly is wisdom and what comprises wise action on the part of a business leader.

Wisdom has a variety of interpretations. Here are two definitions:

The Oxford English Dictionary (1998) states that wisdom is “the capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct; soundness of judgment in the choice between means and ends; sometimes less strictly, sound sense in practical affairs; opposite to folly.” Thus there is a combination of judgment, decisions, and actions.

Robert J. Sternberg, former Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University and a leading researcher of wisdom, sees it as the application of tacit knowledge in pursuing the goal of a common good. It requires a balance of intra-, inter-, and extra-personal interests and a balance of responses to the environmental context over short and longer periods of time.

Think about it: who are the wisest business leaders of all time? Who would you nominate? Let me throw out some examples of what some of my colleagues have suggested:

  • Henry Ford
  • Jack Welch
  • Ray Kroc
  • Bill Gates
  • Steve Jobs
  • Harvey Firestone
  • Thomas Edison
  • Alfred P. Sloan

What about Grove, Gerstner, Packard…? The list is enormous. Remember the criterion for wisdom includes decisions that are enduring over time, not only financial success. So consider intelligence and innovation, but also their contributions to society.

For example, among today’s current “wise” CEOs, you might think of Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, Inc. Or, more controversial nominations could be Gary Loveman at Harrah’s Entertainments, Inc., and Reed Hastings of Netflix, Inc. What about Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, would you consider him to be a wise business leader?

Here’s an interesting article worth reading, published in CNN Money in 2003, written by Jim Collins, The 10 Greatest CEOs of All Time: What these extraordinary leaders can teach today’s troubled executives.

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