How to Gain Real Wisdom, without Real Experience, with MLA

August'19 | William A. Cohen, Ph.D., Major General, USAF, Ret.

gaining-wisdom.jpgThe acquisition of wisdom is important for making successful decisions and accomplishing just about any human endeavor, whether at work,  something in our personal lives, or even winning in a competitive game like Poker. For many of us, management decision-making is the most important of these endeavors and Drucker wrote that it was one of four essentials for application of MLA. We would like to gain wisdom and we probably understand that wisdom comes from experience, but we lack the time, money, resources or something else to invest in real experience. Can’t gain real experience as a manager or leader before becoming one? Well now you can. 

Wisdom’s Impact on Management Performance

There is no doubt that wisdom plays an important part in your success as a manager and leader. Many experts have sought to understand management better. Peter Drucker, the Father of Modern Management simplified it. He wrote that management was best understood as a liberal art. Henry Mintzberg another well-known manager scientist wrote that management is where art, science, and craft meet.  The two geniuses sang the same tune even if their lyrics differed slightly. Management as a Liberal Art or MLA was fully put to test and operationalized by Mintzberg at Mcgill University in Canada. In 1996 Professor Mintzberg began two highly successful management programs for executives. For the first time an accredited management program did not include quantitative analysis courses. Mintzberg theorized that while quantitative analyses courses could be part of management decision-making, they were not the only part and usually not the primary element. Under Mintzberg’s guidance, his programs are still taught and draw students from around the world. Wisdom from past knowledge and experience play a major part in both of his programs. 

Meanwhile, Peter Drucker, “the Father of Modern Management” specified four essentials for implementing  MLA: knowledge, self-knowledge, leadership, and wisdom. 

The Importance of Wisdom

As I noted in a previous article, the importance of wisdom is stressed by nearly every ethnic culture and every ethnicity and major religion. In Christianity, not only did Jesus embrace it, but the Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas cited wisdom as the basis of all human virtues. There are 222 mentions of wisdom in the Jewish Holy Scriptures and it is the foundation of Jewish scholarship and ethics. Other major religions agree. In the Koran, the learning of wisdom is commanded. Buddha taught that to realize enlightenment, a person needs to develop only two qualities, one is wisdom and the other compassion. Pragya wisdom in the Hindu religion is ranked higher than the knowledge obtained by reasoning and inference. Wisdom has been recognized as important everywhere and throughout history.

Most management practitioners agree that managers make the best decisions when they possess wisdom. Mintzberg used managerial knowledge, experience, and group interchange along with assuming of mindsets in the process of problem-solving and managerial decision-making. Drucker stressed that business decision-making also had ethical and social responsibility components which were frequently missed by economic analysis alone. Common to what both taught was that wisdom was significant and frequently higher in importance than quantitative analysis. Mintzberg excluded quantitative analysis from his management programs and Drucker told his PhD students in the classroom not to exclude economic analysis, but to make their management decisions from the gut.

Acquiring Wisdom without Actual Experience

Wikipedia explains that wisdom is the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight. Its discussion concludes that wisdom is a demonstration of expertise based on experience.

Of course, learning everything about everything and acquiring infinite wisdom is unlikely. So we tend to specialize according to our vocations. This is a direction frequently taken but has been humorously criticized as learning more and more about less and less until eventually, one knows almost everything about almost nothing. Drucker said that managers especially had to work at avoiding this result and suggested acquiring expertise in subjects not directly concerned with their work. He himself devoted himself to management, but also demonstrated his expertise in another area by co-authoring a book on Japanese painting. In addition, he was known to have an interest and reading extensively in history, the military, and until hindered by old age, in physical activities from swimming to hiking. He could speak on almost any subject with confidence and expert referencing and did so frequently in the classroom. 

Wisdom Enables Management Decisions by Trained Intuition

Wisdom works by training your intuition. Drucker’s recommendations that management decisions be made from the gut assumed that managers had accumulated the experience to integrate the four essentials of management as a liberal art: knowledge, self-knowledge, leadership, and wisdom to arrive at a good decision, even if little time were available, and information incomplete or completely lacking.

Albert Einstein calculating his famous theory of relativity without computers or even a chalkboard but used inductive reasoning with no hypothesis based on observation of an imagined event to form a general theory. The Theory of Relativity was born from the fantasy of Einstein’s standing next to an imaginary moving beam of light and imagining the results. It was a result made from the gut.

I call this “trained intuition” –It can be sharpened using Mintzberg’s mindset technique and this was exactly what Einstein did.

There are alternatives to real experience for gaining wisdom through experience that do not risk some of the normal penalties of real experience in time or costs or even risks of failure. These include:

  • Learning through the experiences of others second hand by extensive reading, listening of audio programs, speeches, webinars or personal interaction and discussion
  • Experiential learning exercises which require using and mastering the same skills you  would learn in real experience
  • Tasks you perform for someone with reduced penalty for failure such as done as an acknowledged student for which you don’t charge 
  • Psychological techniques such as those described with fantasy and mind-set techniques, or those done through planned dreaming as described by Freud.

Some Psychological Techniques

Such a psychological technique has been employed by successful inventors in history and recorded. Elias Howe who invented the mechanical sewing machine wrote that he dreamed of natives on an island brandishing spears with holes at the point and not the other end. This solved the problem he had been struggling with for some time with making the sewing needlework with the mechanical machine he had designed.  He simply moved the hole for the thread from the rear of the needle where it was located for manual sewing to the head of the needle. That was in the 1840s. Electric sewing machines have the hole in the head of the needle to this day.

Thomas Edison,  the famous American inventor, credited with many inventions routinely used a variation of this technique. When he was trying to gain the wisdom and understanding to overcome a stumbling block in the inventive process, he simply went into a darkened room and went to sleep after filling his mind with all the information he could accumulate about the issue that was troubling him. He usually awoke with the solution. You may have already used this technique yourself. You may have struggled over some problem but could not solve it. You finally went to bed at night without solving the  problem. The next morning you woke up with the solution. Your mind had used this wisdom-application technique while you slept.
Wisdom is important for management decision-making. It is said that experience is the best teacher. But when time or other constraints do not grant you the advantage of real experience, you can gain the experience, and thus the wisdom from alternative MLA methods.

*Adapted and syndicated from a forthcoming book by  Francisco Suarez and William Cohen  PETER DRUCKER’S MOST IMPORTANT NEW REALITY: MLA Methodology and Its Practice

Other Sources

Consulting Drucker: Principles and Lessons by William A. Cohen (LID, 2018)
Drucker’s Lost Art of Management by Joe Maciariello (McGraw-Hill, 2011)
Peter Drucker’s Way to the Top by William A. Cohen (LID, 2019)
The Soul of the Firm by C. William Pollard (Delta One, 2009)
Managers not MBAs by Henry Mintzberg (BK, 2004, 2005)



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William A. Cohen, PhD
Major General, USAF , Ret., President​​

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