Norman Cousins once opined that wisdom is the ability to predict the future. Many successful entrepreneurial leaders, by this measure, seem to have been gifted unusually accurate crystal balls. This predictive intelligence is a matter of understanding human nature and knowing how people will react to new ideas and conditions. And, while wisdom may be a gift for some, for most it is also a matter of hard work.

All business leaders face the need to budget time, allocate money and assign human resources. Only the best, however, gain wisdom along the way by making their experiences cumulative, refining their judgments and building on pattern recognition. A colleague of mine at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, Jeff Pfeffer, laments that most business executives have one year of experience 20 times over rather than 20 years of experience.

He's alluding to the problem many of us have with connecting the dots and constructing predictive theories -- without which our understanding of causality and our development of wisdom, may be frustrated with repeated cases of first impression.

While looking at every set of circumstance with fresh eyes may provoke innovation, it may not be useful innovation. By organizing our experiences and "data" to build a systematic framework, and thinking about probabilities and causality, we can begin to become more wise -- learning to recognize what is most likely to happen, what is most causal, and therefore what is most important.

The best situations seem to arise when combining the "amateur's" fresh eyes with an experienced pro's accumulated experience.  Often this comes in the natural progression of a single leader who, like Steve Jobs, spends time "in the wilderness" before putting it all together.

To develop the sort of wisdom that works in the business world, consider collecting your own data, building on your own pattern recognition and seeing if you can predict the future in three categories every leader deals with:

Team Building

Nothing is more predictive of outcomes, nor more important to the job of the leader -- than sourcing great people, hiring and onboarding them effectively, coaching and giving effective feedback, promoting and retaining the best people, and ultimately helping people who are not the right fit to find their happiness somewhere else. In business, wisdom starts with building and working with a solid team.


Execution is often a matter of setting priorities, defining deliverables, developing a budget and time frames and picking the right champion to lead the effort. However, first you have to figure out what is extraneous. Execution is often a matter of trading what's important for what's more important. Wisdom in execution often flows from simplifying, prioritizing, assigning and measuring. In business, wise leaders execute on the most important objectives.    


As Robert Louis Stevenson said, "Everyone lives by selling something." A corollary is that every business needs revenue, and every sale is derivative of solving a problem that a customer has. And, finally, understanding how everything is connected leads to wisdom, to the ability to build connections and to use the power of adjacencies and collaboration to improve outcomes. Wise business leaders learn how to persuade and connect.

All of these aspects of wisdom can be enhanced and accelerated with keen observation and lots of reflection. This may require what many developing leaders struggle with -- listening without agenda, capturing without prescribing, collecting information to understand. While a crystal ball would be nice, the wise people in my life have been intentional in developing their hard-earned wisdom.