This is the season when graduates hear and reflect on the wisdom of their commencement speakers who come from many walks of life: entertainment, sports, politics, religion, the media, fellow students and business. Here are two samples from 2016: “… the only answer to more hate is more humanity. We have to replace fear with curiosity.” Steven Spielberg, at Harvard University; and “The stories you are about to live are the ones you will be telling your children, and grandchildren and therapists.” Author and actor (of “Hamilton” fame) Lin-Manuel Miranda, at The University of Pennsylvania.
Here’s what the class of 2017 heard from business leaders: “Give more than you receive, and I promise you, it will come back to you in ways you can’t possibly imagine.” Harold Schulz, former CEO of Starbucks, at Arizona State University; “Ask the question: How can I be used? Life, use me. Show me through my talents and my gifts, show me through what I know, what I need to know, what I have yet to learn, how to be used in the greater service to life.” Oprah Winfrey, at Skidmore College; “Learn to embrace failure — not only embrace failure, get good at it, and by that I mean get back up, apply what you’ve learned and hit reset.” Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Martin Casado, at Northern Arizona University; “When you work toward something greater than yourself, you find meaning, you find purpose.” Tim Cook, Chairman and CEO, Apple, at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Wisdom isn’t about the details; it’s about the driving force behind them. So then, what defines wisdom? The quick answer is you’ll know it when you hear it. There’s more. A good description of wisdom is the ability to communicate what you’ve learned from experience for others to appreciate and follow. The ability is difficult to define since it spans so much in a few words.
Researchers at the University of Toronto described three characteristics or categories of wisdom from their studies of the wisdom expressed by great leaders such as Gandhi, Socrates, Lincoln and Mother Teresa. The categories are practical wisdom, philosophical wisdom and benevolent wisdom. There might be another category that combines aspects of all three and that is business wisdom. You’ve seen examples above.
What is the wisdom discussed in business conferences today? How will you build on what the class of 2017 may have heard? How will you provide wisdom in your contact with employees, managers, customers and suppliers?
Wisdom goes beyond a vision and mission statement. It’s the real driving force of a culture. Peter Drucker stands out as an insightful business researcher and advisor. He’s often quoted today. One of my favorite quotes is, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” There’s a lot of wisdom behind that statement.
But how are you keeping wisdom alive both as a legacy and as a way of creating a sustainable future and value base that drives behavior for generations to come. One memorable statement came from James S. McDonnell, chairman and CEO of McDonnell Douglas Corporation, the space pioneers who launched the Mercury capsules with the original astronauts. He said at the conclusion of a speech in St. Louis, “They made peace on the moon, and it spread to earth.” As a desire for the world, it is still a lasting statement of wisdom and a noble goal.
We’ve heard wisdom from contemporary entrepreneurs and business leaders. What specifically are you doing to summarize your major lessons learned into statements of business wisdom? Simplicity, practicality and understandability are they key characteristics. It’s easier than you may think. Write out a few key words and phrases. Pull them together into a message of no more than two sentences.
When I first tried this for a strategy planning session with the finance team at Monsanto several years ago, here’s what happened. I wrote down the words journey, ship, destination, airplane, long range, car and missed. After a night’s reflection and sleep, I came up with and presented this statement during the session “When your ship comes in, don’t be caught at the airport.” They got the message: Be sure to be on the best path with the right resources for future success.
Here are some additional wisdom statements from local business leaders: “Build longevity in your people, and your reputation will last.” Rob Therrien of president and CEO, The Melanson Company; “Refuse to fail, and have a good team who know what to do.” Christopher Hamblet, president of Hamblet Electric Contractors; “Be curious, creative and experiment — keep evolving.” Steve Silverstein, president of Tree Free Cards and Gifts.
What words and phrases are meaningful to you and your company? Get a blank sheet of paper and create the words and phrases you’ll integrate into the wisdom that’s quoted as your legacy for generations of employees to come!