Wisdom: Our modern GPS for navigating life’s complexity

Ask corporate leaders their greatest concerns with today’s business landscape, and many will rank growing complexity high on the list. As technology has accelerated, the challenges associated with a complex environment –information overload, the global economy’s domino effects, and an unpredictable landscape– have grown. And the complexity will only increase as innovation advances in years ahead.

But the good news is this: humans have an innate tool for coping with these challenges and making sense of today’s chaos.

Wisdom is our modern GPS for navigating life’s complexity. But rather than simplifying the messiness of life, wisdom actually allows us to see more complexity – and gives us the higher understanding needed to break it down.

Rather than simplifying the messiness of life, wisdom actually allows us to see more complexity – and gives us the higher understanding needed to break it down.

By tapping into the power of wisdom, CEOs can unleash their full potential to cut through the clutter of modern times and make stronger leadership decisions.

Wise people possess three key attributes especially critical for today’s business leaders: cognitive, intuitive and time-perspective.

Cognitive is the rational side of wisdom – the collection and analysis of knowledge and data to help us think through decisions. The art of cognition is a key part of making any decision, and it has never been more valued than it is in today’s era of Big Data. The McKinsey Global Institute projects the U.S. will need up to 190,000 workers with analytical expertise and another 1.5 million managers with a strong working knowledge of data to assist them in decision-making in coming years.

But mastery of complexity can’t be achieved through rational thinking alone. Tapping into wisdom also requires the intuitive sense – the aspect of wisdom that unleashes gut-level instincts to assist in decision making. A growing body of research shows the important role it plays in key decisions.

Gerd Gigerenzer, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin who has studied decision-making for most of his career, told Harvard Business Review last summer that half of decision-makers at large international companies he’s worked with ultimately base their decisions on gut instinct. In another study from researchers at Tel Aviv University, participants made the right call 90 percent of the time when forced to decide between two options based on only instinct. By combining the rational with the instinctual, leaders can be better equipped to navigate today’s landscape.

Leaders also need the ability to understand the increasingly complex world with hindsight, insight and foresight. This is time-perspective, and in the realm of decision-making, it separates the average from the excellent.

As the pace of business accelerates, there’s increasing pressure to base decisions on information available in the moment. But the reality is much more complicated, and it requires an equally sophisticated approach. By taking the long view – with appreciation for the past, knowledge of the present and anticipation of what’s to come – leaders will be more informed and better positioned to navigate complex decisions.

These ideas are not new. Indeed, wisdom dates back to our most primal roots, and was revered during a much simpler time. But in today’s complicated, global society, organizational leaders need wisdom more than ever.

So let’s resurrect wisdom – to make a complex landscape more navigable, and allow leaders to tap into an innate skill that’s too often neglected.

Dr. Juan “Kiko” Suarez is Vice President of Innovation and Communications at Lumina Foundation, a national foundation focused on higher education attainment.