How leaders can nurture practical wisdom

Barry Schwartz, co-author of “Practical Wisdom,” discusses the way leaders and organizations can encourage their employees to do the right thing the right way.

Faith & Leadership asked Barry Schwartz about the characteristics, traits and habits institutional leaders need to be “system changers.” These leaders, Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe write in “Practical Wisdom,” build “institutions that encourage practitioners to develop practical wisdom instead of draining it from them.” Here are Schwartz’s thoughts on the various leadership behaviors that encourage practical wisdom and impede it.

On being a “system changer”

There are a couple key ingredients. One is you always make sure the telos -- the goal, the mission -- is central. I don’t just mean that everybody reads the mission statement when they come on board; I mean that the mission is embodied in the day-to-day activities of the people who are actually going to be training newcomers and in the day-to-day ways in which people who work in the organization interact with their clients or patients.

The second is you give the people you are training -- you give the people you’re bringing up -- an opportunity to try, fail and get better.

Now, if you’re training a surgeon, you really don’t want the person you’re training to fail, so you’re sort of looking over that person’s shoulder with great care, because if the student fails, the patient dies. In other domains, there is a little more latitude for failure and learning from failure.

So be clear on what the mission is, embody the mission every day in everything you do, and then give enough discretion to the younger people in the organization so they can learn how to do their jobs wisely.

On empathy

I think everybody needs empathy, not just leaders. [If] a doctor has bad news to deliver to a patient, how do you have this conversation if you’re a doctor? I think there is no formula to answer that. I think you’re trying to balance, on the one hand, the desire to be kind and, on the other hand, the desire to be honest. Those are both good things, but what’s the right mix for this person who is sitting across the desk from you?

The only way to answer that question with any degree of accuracy is if you can empathize with the person you are about to give the bad news to.

Another example: If a student turns in disappointing work, it takes empathy for a teacher to know whether the thing to do is to be encouraging or to be even more demanding. There’s no formula to answer that one, either. You need to get inside the head and heart of the student to figure out what this particular student needs.

This is basically a universal need. If people are going to interact well with other people, they need empathy.

But I don’t think you can be empathetic accurately unless you know the other person well. And so in the case of medicine, for example, when you’re seeing patients for seven minutes, you don’t ever get to know your patients well enough to get that judgment right except by luck.

People often imagine that empathy is, “How would I feel if I were in this situation?” That’s not a bad question to ask, but it’s not adequate, because the real question is, “How does she feel in this situation?” This is not necessarily the same as how you would feel.

On storytelling

There’s good reason to think that the way people understand themselves is by telling their own stories. We embed particular experiences in narratives that have trajectories -- I was here yesterday, I’m going to be there tomorrow, and now here I am today in the middle of this journey.

And if you are a doctor trying to diagnose a patient who has got a puzzling set of symptoms, it is helpful to know what the patient’s narrative is, too, because many, many symptoms have psychological overtones, and knowing the patient’s emotional condition is likely to be relevant. You can’t know that without knowing the patient’s life story.

The same is true when you’re trying to teach kids and raise kids. The kids we raise are on a journey that they themselves acknowledge, and unless you know where your 6-year-old is on this journey, you’re likely to make bad guesses about what he or she needs when something goes wrong.

On encouraging “mastery motivation”

You try to structure the job so that people face challenges -- challenges that are not impossible to meet, but challenges that demand attention to detail and perseverance.

You also give the people you work with enough freedom so they can actually try to meet these challenges on their own. The result is that they get better and better at what they do, and they continue to be interested in showing up and doing the best that they can.

It’s difficult when you’re running an organization to do this, because there are the nuts and bolts of things that have to be done to keep an organization running, and after a while those things sort of get boring, yet somebody has got to do them.

But I suspect that a wise manager will find a way to make every job an appropriate mixture of the routine and the challenging, and keep everyone inspired to do their best.