Embracing Wisdom Leadership


About the Author :

Shalini Sarin married soon after her undergrad, and the journey to break traditional moulds started then. She continued her education while her children were growing up and pursued her Master, MBA & PhD. Her career started with teaching, moved into consulting and then into the corporate world for over 30 years.

She shifted to Europe for a global role, where she lived alone without her family and broke several traditional paradigms. With HR at her core, she developed an interest in Sustainability & CSR and took up the challenge of heading a global solar incubator. Stretching boundaries & creating impact became her way of being, with a passion for organisational culture & change. 

She returned to India in 2019 and now serves as an Independent Director on a few boards, advises and coaches CEOs & executive teams, and volunteering time for a few not-for-profit organisations.

When I superannuate at 60, will I be excited about a free calendar, the freedom to travel, read books, listen to music, and attend weddings and birth announcements? Or will I be worried about moving away from my familiar routine since I wouldn’t know how to conduct my life without a calendar? Will I still have loads of energy and be willing to continue to work and create impact as well as give back to my family, community, and society at large?

How would one feel if they knew that their monetary investment over decades suddenly becomes zero at 60? This despair is the same as when the value of experience gained over four decades is supposed to be extinguished at retirement.

How do we leverage years of experience and wisdom that leaders acquire over a lifetime to benefit the multigenerational workplace? In an uncertain and complex environment, owing to factors like climate change, health pandemics, technology (ChatGPT), etc. the value of Wisdom Leadership becomes evident.

Recently, I was coaching a young and dynamic CEO, with a strong pedigree from an Ivy League business school and work experience at one of the big four consulting firms. He was extremely sharp and had tremendous energy, agility, analytical ability, and market understanding. However, lacked the wisdom required to understand the social dynamics within his organisation and board. He had not yet cultivated the ability to be patient yet fast, reflective as well as analytical and intuitive while being discerning. I witnessed his extraordinary ability to grasp, commit, and implement suggested changes, and his openness to process information and learn. However, the ability to anticipate the unintended consequences, create contingency plans and scenario planning were limited. In a nutshell, he placed more focus on what must be done rather than how it must be implemented and its varied impact on the organisation.

He wanted me to provide suggestions and advice, wrapped neatly in a pill that he could digest within one or two meetings. While, I had a lot to learn from his industry knowledge, and sharp ability to grasp and analyse data, both of us realised that we had a symbiotic relationship in which I could observe him and reflect his actions to him but he was unable to grasp what I was reflecting. Even his colleagues or “buddies”, as he called them, were reticent to put it forward to him, and when they did, he was unable to listen to them and extract the message.

Our expectation from leaders is shifting beyond traditional leadership capabilities. We expect them to be flexible, agile, manage ambiguity, and make fast decisions, lest they miss the train. We expect them to be humane and empathetic due to the changes in the modern workplace as well as with social media adding to this demand.

The individual leader brings their whole self and not a mathematical sum of their capabilities. There is an interdependency of context which cannot be explained in a cause-and-effect relationship. Experience and wisdom take a panoramic approach while dealing with complex problems. It is a considered view, by observing patterns and taking a systems approach.

A wise leader is self-aware of their biases and distortions. They have a keen desire and ability to listen and learn. Discernment comes with wisdom and reflection and not necessarily by relying on data alone to arrive at decisions. Experience teaches them to be more open to listening and understanding different perspectives to bring out diverse values. A wise leader is also able to let go of small issues in the interest of the larger, long-term good. Crises don’t unnerve them or shock them as much since they have not only lived through them but also successfully handled them. Leadership capability is further enhanced through participation in diverse projects, roles, and teams which bring a greater depth and breadth of experience and expertise.

A young and bright professional I was coaching wanted to quit her job and pursue her PhD in Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance. I wanted to help her think through why she wanted to pursue her PhD and visualise her future. During our interaction, she realised that it was not for the right reasons and that she would be giving up her high-flying career. Sometimes, shiny objects look very attractive and in today’s world, there is an abundance of them. Experience and wisdom enable one to think through several steps into the future to self-reflect on the relevance.

My son, a filmmaker, shared that he had gained many insights from his senior experienced colleagues on understanding human behaviour and the complexities around it. The nuances learnt have helped him develop a well-rounded perspective around situations and he is able to handle them with greater maturity. Having said that, he also believes that varied generations can learn a lot from each other if they were to collaborate as equals with an open mind. It will also help seniors keep themselves updated with new technology and ways of working.

While the more experienced have seen several cycles of recession, technology, and market disruptions, we must not underestimate the pace of change today. Hence, an open mindset is required to let go of biases and paradigms and to keep learning and cherry-pick from the past and present, when appropriate.

My plea to the superannuated folks is to consider the next 20 to 30 years as the golden period. You have accumulated wealth, experience, and wisdom and must now utilise it expertly to define the way your family, friends, community & society will remember you at large. You have the luxury to live your life by design and not by default.

And my plea to the organisations, institutions, and our community is to evaluate and engage this rich source of wisdom and experience, creatively, to benefit mutually.

Photo Credits: Saonli Sen Choudhury of WisdomCircle

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