The Need for Both Knowledge & Wisdom

The other day I was talking with a young person (defined here as a high school student) who was pretty sure they knew everything there was to know about the world (parents of teenagers – does this sound familiar?).   The subject was driving, and the response was typical of those who have learned the basics about something – if you know how to do it, that means you know everything there is to know about it.   Not so fast, my young grasshopper.  There is a big difference between knowledge and wisdom (and when it comes to driving, wisdom gets all dressed up as “experience”).

Knowledge and wisdom – they make quite a pair, actually.  It’s great when they come to the party together, but it can be rare to see them at the same time.  Sort of like Clark Kent and Superman.  It’s wonderful to know everything there is to know about a subject.  All of us know how valuable this is – in fact, we often task our direct reports with getting to the bottom of a specific issue or subject in order to cover more ground and make us all smarter, etc.  So knowledge is good; we value it, and we should.  Wisdom might be even better, though.  Wisdom encompasses many great attributes such as understanding, sensitivity, good judgment, perception, and insight.  It’s what senior leaders use to synthesize all of the great knowledge that others bring to the table.  They can’t possibly know everything, but they use their wisdom to consider the angles and options and then make a decision.  You get the difference and the interplay between the two, because you encounter both (or the lack thereof) every day.

So here’s my challenge to you as a leader – are you developing both knowledge and wisdom in your direct reports?   Do you actively talk with them about both?  Do you place an equal emphasis on both?  In your development conversations with your team, do you draw a distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and do you strive to help them understand how to make one work with the other?

In my conversation with the young driver, I acknowledged that he probably knew how to start the car, put it in gear, and keep it on the road.  But then I asked a series of questions about driving conditions he hadn’t encountered yet – ice, snow, 7 lanes of fast moving traffic, etc.  We got to a place where he realized that maybe he didn’t know all the ways to apply the knowledge of driving a car just yet.  Help your employees get there too – it’s not enough to just know things – you have to have the wisdom to apply that knowledge for the greatest benefit.  Make sure you’re drawing out the distinction, and spend time developing their capabilities in both areas.