A Wisdom Council is a profoundly valuable tool for the business leader or manager grappling with a challenging concern that requires practical action. The process has its origins in a centuries-old model, adapted for the modern corporate environment. Based on the belief that we all have access to an inner intelligence, this technique can be used as a way of seeking clarity around important decisions or transitions. The concept is that when an individual is given the support to find their own answers through self-reflection, the discovery is more likely to have deeper and longer-lasting results.
The Wisdom Council is a problem-solving technique that asks its members to contribute from a very different perspective than is customary. It is convened when a leader has a specific question, issue, or problem that they have not been able to work out on their own. The individual then meets with the four or five colleagues or work partners who are able to maintain strict confidentiality and be present in the spirit of genuine concern.
The group members’ primary responsibility is to help the focus individual uncover their inner truth more deeply by asking honest, open questions; no judgement, no advice, no “fixing,” no saving, no wise anecdotes, no correcting, just open-ended inquiry to help guide the individual toward inner clarity to know if it is best to act on the stated matter, to wait, or to take another direction altogether.
It is important to keep in mind that the goal of the Wisdom Council is not to reach any particular outcome, but to discern whether there is clarity on a matter and if there is clarity, where it lies. In this process, the answer is not found in “correct” responses to a set of questions; rather, success is measured when a deeper wisdom is found in the sense of having uncovered the promptings of one’s inner guidance.
The collaborators assist by asking questions that “ . . . strip away whatever obstacles lie between [the person’s] ears and [the person’s] Truth,” as Parker Palmer, educator, scholar, author, and thought leader, explains. All involved can usually sense when this unity has been reached.
The Wisdom Council can meet for 45 minutes to an hour, anywhere from once to three times over several weeks or months in duration, depending on the complexity of the issue.
If necessary, members of a Wisdom Council may meet separately from the focus person in order to clarify process or address obstacles to unity.
Here are a few of the fundamental responsibilities of the participants in the Wisdom Council:
Providing an atmosphere of trust, confidentiality, and focus.
Respecting the intent of the council; refraining from idle chatter, laughter, or cross-talk.
Listening deeply to the person’s issue without a personal agenda in mind.
Recognizing unspoken issues and bringing them to the surface by asking thoughtful and open-ended questions (see below).
Keeping the pace and tone of the questions gentle, supportive, relaxed, and without agenda, to keep the focus person feeling safe.
Refraining from defining, advising, comforting, suggesting, or manipulating the focus individual, thereby allowing them to find their own inner guidance.
Recognizing that the questions are less about “getting answers” and more about supporting the person in finding their own answers.
Exercising patience and understanding that silence is important and valuable and may mean that insights are arising from the depths within.
Toward the end of the meeting, if requested by the focus person, reflecting back what they have said as well as their body language, allowing them to determine if what was heard by others resonates with them (no response is required from the individual).
In the last few minutes of the meeting, thanking, affirming, and acknowledging the individual for the courage it takes to be vulnerable.
Understanding that not finding an immediate response is not a failure; that often, answers can take time to emerge.
Holding the truth that the most precious gifts we can give to one another is our trust, time, support, and attention.
The Responsibilities of the Focus Person
The focus person should do the following:
Before presenting the issue, ask one group member to act as facilitator, keeping time and focusing the group on the process, and another member to be the scribe and record in writing any important questions, roadblocks, and insights.
Take a moment of silence to center themselves.
Begin with a brief summary of the question or concern, which usually takes about 10 minutes.
Keep the responses relatively brief, so there is more time for further questions and responses.
Recognize that the deeper one delves into the issue at hand, the greater the possibility that clarity will arise; it is in the answers the focus person hears themselves giving that they uncover their inner wisdom.
Again, it is important to restate that on some occasions the council and the individual may not find clarity. This is not an indication of failure; rather, it merely signifies the need for further searching and internal dialogue. Often, the clarity, or right action, will arise over time as an awareness that unfolds gradually.
Examples of Agenda-Free Questions
These are open-ended questions to which the participants could not know the answer:
What are you seeking to clarify?
In what ways do you feel already clear?
Where do you feel stuck?
What did you mean when you said _______?
Has this issue presented itself to you in the past? Where? How?
What holds the most meaning for you about this issue?
What is at stake for you?
What would you like to see different?
What resources do you feel would be helpful to you at this time?
Is there some part of the issue that is time-sensitive?
Are you prepared to undertake this issue at this time?
Do you feel you have the requisite skills and resources available to you?
What steps might be taken to become better prepared for the undertaking?
What are the risks and how will they be addressed?
Are there any steps required before moving forward?
What are the potential benefits to the company as a whole?
What might be the downside or upside of taking no action?
A Wisdom Council is a true gift and resource. It is nurtured over time through mature interactions. An executive or leader who can convene a Wisdom Council is privy to a rich and valuable well of insight and guidance. It goes much deeper than strategic meetings or leadership teams. Leadership teams have their place. A Wisdom Council holds a “wiser” and more unique role.