Leading with Wisdom

Leadership is not a position, but a relationship. It is not something we do to other people, but something we do with other people.

Leadership literature is exploding with books and articles to help us become better leaders. At the same time, numerous leadership programs, institutes, centers, coaches, and consultants claim to develop more effective leaders. Annually, the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard measures public confidence in leadership with its National Leadership Index (NLI). It surveys Americans’ attitudes toward their leaders, including 13 of the country’s major sectors such as the military, religious, education, and business. In 2012, according to the NLI, “some 69 percent of Americans still believe we have a leadership crisis.”

We live and work in an environment dominated by an increasing rate of change and complexity. Leading is further complicated because of the mix of four generations of workers and more companies asking people to “do more with less.” To say the least, knowing how to lead is increasingly a challenge.


In order to determine the best way to prepare people to be the kinds of leaders needed in these uncertain times, I designed a study called “In Search of Sages.” Since 2004, I have interviewed more than 100 thought leaders and some of the top executive coaches in the country (i.e., Warren Bennis, Peter Block, Margaret Wheatley, Stephen Covey, Marshall Goldsmith, Peter Senge, and Sally Helgesen). In addition, I interviewed senior leaders of organizations that had received awards for creating healthy workplaces that encourage and support people in bringing their minds, bodies, and spirits to work.

To narrow my sample, I used the criteria of servant leadership as defined by Robert Greenleaf and of sage defined by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Servant leaders remove obstacles to make progress—serve— rather than become obstacles. Sages are people who are able to synthesize life experiences and translate them into wisdom shared with others as part of their legacy work. I decided to integrate the lessons learned and wisdom gained into my own personal life—in my teaching, workshops, and life experience.

Ultimately, this work became a book titled “Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts.” I call this my “eat, pray, love” book of leadership because it explains a leadership philosophy and practices that evolved from my active pursuit of listening and putting what I heard into action.

But this was the surprise: When I asked the sages about leadership, they told me about life. And that the most important person to lead you is yourself.


When I reflect back on my learning journey, the point of most of the readings and activities was to get to know oneself on a much deeper level. While self-knowledge is critical, we need to “peel the onion” back much further—similar to matryoshka dolls or Russian nesting dolls (decreasing in size with one placed inside the other). This involves realizing that our strengths when taken to an extreme can become weaknesses. It means understanding that the ego can manifest into greed, jealousy, manipulation, narcissism, exaggerated sense of self worth, and defensiveness when out of control. These behaviors ultimately can cause environments to become toxic for those who work within them. In fact, Margaret Wheatley told me, “People in my audiences describe their workplaces as ‘land of the walking dead.’”

In reality, leadership is not a position, but a relationship. It is not something we do to other people, but something we do with other people. Frances Hesselbein, president and CEO of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute (formerly the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management), often puts it this way, “Leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do.”

So, much of what it takes to excel as a leader has to do with self-management—knowing who you are at a deep level—and how you use this knowledge and awareness to build relationships.

Working America, a community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, sponsors an annual event called “My Bad Boss Contest” (http://www.workingamerica.org/badboss). Workers are encouraged to share an anonymous story about a nightmare boss for a chance to win a well-deserved, weeklong vacation.

What I realized in my research is just a small amount of self-knowledge and acknowledgement of leadership blind spots is all that is needed to solve most of the problems employees experience. Knowing ourselves on a deeper level prevents the dark side of leadership from dominating behaviors—critical in creating workplaces where people want to work.


My favorite definition of leadership was from a workshop I attended facilitated by Peter Senge, author of “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization” (1990). Senge asked us to come up with different words for “leader”; people mentioned words such as “inspiration” and “aspiration.”

He reminded us that “spire” comes from the Latin root meaning literally “breath” or “breath of life.” Therefore, he defines leadership as the ability to “breathe life into someone or something.” I have modified this slightly for my work: Leaders breathe life into people, programs, and projects. If leadership is about breathing life into people, programs, and projects, then the toxic air created in organizations as a result of poor leadership habits and skills is a productivity killer, which eventually will extinguish the life of even the best and most engaged employee.

James Hunter, author of “The Servant: A Simple Story About the Essence of Leadership” (1998), reminded me that it is not about moving up to the level of leader, but about the end of the journey—being an effective and good leader. One of the main questions, Hunter told me, is: “Are people better off because we are their leaders?” Sadly, this is not true in many cases, because ego and narcissism win the day.

Executive coach Dan Peterson shared this definition of ego with me during a four-day retreat I attended in Colorado: “The ego is the difference between what you want to have happen and what is happening. It is the gap between what we want and what is. When we learn to ‘let go’ of the difference, we are controlling the ego and not letting it control us.” Petersen said it is a process of moving from “it’s all about me, to it’s all about us, to the very inclusive, it’s all about all of us.”

At the end of this learning journey is the lesson that in order to lead with wisdom, we need to realize that ego development is an essential component for leadership development. The question I often ask is: Would you follow yourself?

Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, and leadership development and change management consultant at The Genysys Group. Her most recent book is “Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts” (ASTD, 2013). For more information visit www.thegenysygroup.com and http://www.JannFreed.com

Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, coach, and leadership development and change management consultant. Her most recent book is “Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts” (ATD, 2013). For more information, visit: http://www.JannFreed.com.