In and Age of Complexity and Rapid Change, Wisdom is More Important Than Ever

“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

— Albert Einstein

In our technology driven information age, we’ve accepted that clinging to old ways of thinking and doing things can be detrimental to business success. But information technology used independently of the timeless and unchanging principles that define wisdom and integrity can breed as many business failures as successes.  In an age of complexity and rapid change, it’s important to remind ourselves of that reality.

Technology has radically increased the number of options that people have available, and on a whim most people think that more choices are better. I’ve met few that think otherwise, and yet such thinking flies directly in the face of what we’ve been seeing happen around us.

Are more choices always better?

Simply giving people more choices means that they can make more bad ones, a reality that seems to escape most people. The proliferation of Internet based addictions, “cyber-bullying,” and other technology based pathologies that have accompanied this explosive growth in the number of choices available to people illustrates this reality quite dramatically.

In a culture increasingly defined by desires for immediate gratification, the problem of more choices leading to more bad ones is compounded. Giving people more choices may be good for sales, but is it good for the people themselves? This is a question that we need to take seriously— sometimes getting what you want can be the worst thing that can happen to you.

What’s missing is wisdom

Warren Bennis, a longstanding expert on organizations and leadership warned us years ago that rapid increases in complexity and change carry with them serious liabilities. In one of his landmark books, Why Leaders Can’t Lead, Bennis argued that we’ve entered an age in which change is the only constant, a condition that radically destabilizes important core values that are necessary for long-term success in business and life.

If you examine the strategic plans of most businesses, you almost invariably find references to such values as “honesty,” “integrity,” and “concern for customer well being” stated as being their highest priorities. These are all manifestations of what we used to call wisdom, and history bears out the importance of adhering to such values as cornerstones for long term success.

What we see in practice however, is another matter. In the face of complexity, rapid change, and high competitiveness, we’ve seen business leaders resorting to all kinds of tactics that are focused not on the long term, but on the immediate bottom line.  Deceptive practices, cover-ups, and false advertising are anything but wise, and in direct opposition to commonly stated values. 

GM and Toyota’s current woes

At the time of this writing (early April, 2014), two of the big business stories have focused on scandals involving automakers General Motors and Toyota. Both stories have a common thread: Recalls due to technology deployed with insufficient testing regarding its safety.

Both automakers have had to recall millions of cars with known defects that were covered up for years before they became public, which has further tarnished both companies’ credibility and raised new questions about their corporate cultures.  Business practices intended to increase these companies’ margins in the short run are leading to decreases in their margins in the long run.

Root causes: Obsessions with technology

Particularly informative is Toyota’s most recent problems with the popular Prius— a software glitch that can cause the vehicles to shut down at unexpected and inopportune times, an obvious danger in crowded highway traffic. 

According to Jack Nerad, executive editorial director of Kelly Blue Book, the problems are coming from the increasing complexity of today’s cars, which makes them much more susceptible to problems than in the past. Nerad claims that we’re seeing a rash of problems that we’d have never seen 20 years ago.

Simply stated, our love of “cool” technology is leading us to buy and drive vehicles that are behaving in increasingly unpredictable ways.

Is technology controlling us?

The very technologies that we humans developed to serve us seem to be encroaching on our sovereignty, making us increasingly dependent upon them. This brings me back to the topic of wisdom, which we seem to be abandoning as archaic and obsolete. 

Current events are again quite telling in this regard. At the time of this writing, tech stocks, which so many investors had been regarding as our route to future prosperity, have taken a huge tumble since mid March, dragging down stocks in general. 401Ks and IRAs are taking a beating, and along with them, people’s futures. Our dependence on technology is hurting us in unexpected ways.

Warnings went unheeded

It’s not like we weren’t warned.  As early as the 1960s, the very pioneers who developed digital technology were warning us of the dangers of becoming overly dependent upon it. Such warnings typically included recommendations that we be thoughtful and cautious regarding its deployment and uses. 

But that’s not what has happened. The financial possibilities associated with its commercialization and its ability to greatly expand the range of options available to people caused such warnings to go unheeded.

Rediscovering wisdom

References to wisdom used to be commonplace, and one characteristic of our high tech age has been a wholesale abandonment of the concept. But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that we need a revival in regard to it. Granted, it’s not the most tangible commodity we can conceive of, but it is conspicuous in its absence.

And there’s much at stake in continuing to ignore its importance. The results of innumerable surveys and polls indicate that the vast majority of Americans think that our country is “going in the wrong direction,” which suggests that many are longing for the re-emergence of something resembling wisdom, by whatever name one might choose to refer to it.

Defining characteristics of wisdom

Warren Bennis, in doing his research for Why Leaders Can’t Lead, conducted detailed case studies of 90 leaders of organizations with proven records of success over long periods of time. These individuals were successful in the financial sense, but also had earned the respect of subordinates as well as peers in the business world.

Bennis summarized a number of “virtues” that might be seen as comprising what we might want to use as a model for what could be called wisdom. A short list of some of those virtues appears below:

Integrity: High standards of moral and intellectual honesty on which there conduct was based. These individuals didn’t just claim to place a high value on these standards.  They adhered to them consistently regardless of any costs they might incur. They were reliable and predictably honest independently of the situations they were in.

Dedication: A passionate belief in the value of what they were doing that went beyond money. They’d found their true calling in life and had drew genuine satisfaction from hard work and a focus on the long term.

Humility: The absence of anything that might be called an “ego trip.” As a group, these people were not above pitching in and doing the lowliest work that their organization might require of anyone. They were respectful of others as persons and treated people at all levels with respect.

Openness: The absence of prejudices and preconceived notions about people and possibilities. They placed a high value on life-long learning, both for themselves and those who worked for them.  They were also great active listeners, who were always willing to hear others out.

Cultivating wisdom

In a highly competitive world of complexity and rapid change, it’s easy for any of us to lose our perspective and focus on the immediate. The value of wisdom is that it buffers the effects of that world and helps us to maintain a coherent grasp on reality.

We need to recoup the value formerly placed on wisdom despite the onslaughts against it wielded by our pop culture, with its overemphasis on self, entertainment, and immediate gratification. The best way to do that is to make wisdom an issue.  It will take “special weapons and tactics” to do so, but the sooner we make the commitment, the sooner we’ll begin to reap the benefits.

Dr. Richardson is the founder of Redwood Enterprises, a business consulting, training, and executive coaching firm that specializes in helping business owners make sure that what they do every day reflects sound strategic planning. He is available for speaking engagements on business related topics. Visit his company’s website at, or contact Redwood Enterprises by phone at 610.326.3670.