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Don't Mistake Your Knowledge for Wisdom

The difference between them can be fuzzy, but understanding that is critical to both your growth and your company's.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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Wisdom snuck up on me. I wasn't looking for it. It didn't announce itself. And, quite frankly, I thought for a long time that knowledge and wisdom were twins. I've come to learn they're cousins.

In 2013, when the three young Airbnb founders approached me about becoming their "modern elder," they brought me on for my knowledge. I, too, thought my greatest asset would be my understanding of and experience with the travel industry. Little did I know, my insight into that industry was only one of the benefits I brought to the founders and their team.

Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky has an insatiable appetite to learn. So, in 2011, when the company was dealing with the aftermath of the trashing of a host's home by an Airbnb guest (which got a lot of media attention), he sought out George Tenet, the former head of the CIA, to give him some tutelage on trust and safety issues. Similarly, Brian wasn't shy in seeking out John Donahoe (now the president and CEO of Nike, but then the president and CEO of eBay) to understand two-sided marketplaces. Brian reached out to me as a longtime boutique hotel entrepreneur when he came to the realization that, while Airbnb's mission was to "democ­ra­tize hospitality," the company had not one employee from the hospitality or travel industry.

Yes, I helped the team understand the travel landscape, and yes, I acted as a de facto secretary of state dispatched to foster diplomacy between Airbnb and the industry we were disrupting. But, to my surprise, there were all kinds of other wisdom on leadership and emotional intelligence I was able to offer that might have seemed obvious to me, but was a revelation for those half my age with whom I worked.

One of my colleagues called this "invisible productivity" -- I helped everyone around me get better at what they did, often by asking innocent questions that helped expose what they didn't know. It's been said that knowledge speaks and wisdom listens, and I believe that wisdom listens for what isn't being said. That's where you'll find the blind spots.

My appreciation of this distinction led me to co-create the world's first midlife wisdom school, the Modern Elder Academy (MEA), which has a campus in Baja California Sur and will soon have another in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I've come to learn that wisdom is portable and can take you places you never imagined, even beyond your sphere of influence and expertise. Yes, knowledge is power, but it's often static. It also risks obsolescence with time. Meanwhile, wisdom ferments like a fine wine you can share.

Unfortunately, there are too many entrepreneurs who mistake knowledge for wisdom. They think because they're brilliant coders and the smartest people in the room, they understand human psy­chology or corporate branding. But we've all seen the trash heap of companies where hubris trumped humility, from BlackBerry to WeWork to Theranos to MoviePass.

I once mentored a European entrepreneur who was a charming salesperson with a remarkable ­design eye, but who didn't want to hear my warnings about overleveraging and breakneck growth. He thought that his excellent domain expertise in sales and design applied to the rest of the business. My own painful lessons could have been the raw materials for his growing wisdom, but he had a blind spot, believing he could use persuasion to solve any problem. His company is now in bankruptcy.

In 1959, management guru Peter Drucker pre­dicted that the organizational world would someday be ruled by knowledge workers. Most people had no idea what he was talking about, but within two ­decades, knowledge management had become a core practice of smart companies. I think it's time for us to recognize that in a world awash in knowledge, the "wisdom worker" is starting to emerge as a strategic need in many fast-growing companies.

I want to share three wisdom management practices your company could start to institute immediately, but first I'll tell you a brief story.

At 28, when I was struggling as a young CEO, I repurposed an empty diary into My Wisdom Book. Each weekend, I reflected on some of my greatest learning moments of the past week. Afterward, I'd dutifully add a few bullet points, reflecting on what I had learned from these experiences. I've been dedicated to this practice for 34 years, although I admit that when I first started, I didn't realize it would become my most valuable leadership habit -- as I mentioned earlier, wisdom snuck up on me. Many decades later, I've come to realize that this weekend ritual was my way to metabolize and accelerate my wisdom, and that more leaders need to develop wisdom practices and rituals of their own. So, here are my suggestions.

1. Distill team wisdom.

What if you took the Wisdom Book practice I mentioned and applied it to your team? No, you shouldn't require that everyone do a weekly wisdom inquiry, but what if you created quarterly team check-ins throughout the organization that allowed each team member to talk about their biggest recent lesson and how they'll apply it moving forward?

2. Make the wise more accessible.

As part of your routine employee satisfaction surveys, you could include the question "Beyond your boss, who in the organization offers you helpful advice or wisdom?" This information would allow you to create a Wisdom Heat Map of where wisdom is stored. Once you've identified where that is, you might consider asking some of your wise people if they'd like to be trained as internal coaches and take their careers in that direction.

3. Develop "mentern" programs.

I was a "mentern" at Airbnb, a wise mentor on EQ and a clueless and curious intern about DQ, or digital intelligence (who knew a technophobe could be head of strategy for a tech company?). Mentoring programs can have a great learning and development ROI, and they do improve employee retention, but wise companies realize the value of mutual mentorship. They recognize that matching programs in which two internal leaders have complementary knowledge (he knows how to run a meeting, she knows how to maximize personal tech gadgets) can create deeper intergenerational relationships.

Photo Credit: Illustration by Allie Sullberg.

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