Over the 20+ years that we've worked with Fortune 50 companies, nonprofits and emerging businesses, we've seen firsthand how organizations benefit when they deliberately cultivate wiser leaders.
And now the research is finally beginning to catch up with our findings.
It turns out that the "human side" of leadership is more important than anyone originally suspected. But there's a key problem: as most leaders rise through the ranks, their ability to lead wisely and effectively actually diminishes.
What Makes a Leader Wise?
Wisdom is difficult to define: we often know it when we see it, but it’s a quality that's very different from leader to leader. Still, over the years we've noticed that there are three very specific qualities, or strengths, that wise leaders cultivate: communication, connection, and warmth.
1. Wise Leaders are Engaged Communicators.
According to extraordinary research by MIT professor Alex Pentland, high-performing teams display highly evolved communication patterns. In fact, those communication patterns are the most important predictor of their success—more so than "individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions, combined.”
But of course, communication isn’t just about talking. It’s a subtle exchange of ideas and energy, a nuanced give and take. To be a strong communicator, you have to be an engaged communicator.
So what do engaged communicators do?
They make sure all group members are involved in the discussion—not just those with the strongest vocal chords. They don’t just focus on being heard, they focus on hearing—especially the things that go unsaid.
In short, truly engaged communicators bring people together and bring out valuable contributions from everyone in the room.
As Pentland puts it, "Teams that have clusters of members who engage in high-energy communication while other members do not participate don't perform as well. When we observed teams making investment decisions, for instance, the partially engaged teams made worse (less profitable) decisions than fully engaged teams.”
2. Wise Leaders are Connectors.
Another hallmark of wise leaders is their ability to foster connections beyond their immediate division, region, or realm of expertise.
Alex Pentland’s research, once again, sheds light on this aspect of leadership. His studies led him to conclude that individuals on high-performing teams seek out more outside connections than individuals on less-successful teams.
Furthermore, the most successful and creative team members "sought fresh perspectives constantly, from all other groups in (and some outside) the organization.”
The best leaders are connectors. And by fostering diverse relationships that transcend the usual borders, they unearth valuable new ideas, insights, and opportunities.
But that’s not all: with their wide web of connections, these leaders can be powerful change agents within their organizations. This puts them in an extremely valuable position: organizational change is difficult, and employees tend to oppose change initiatives that
threaten to topple the status quo. Because of this, most leaders fail to establish significant organizational change.
But that doesn’t hold true for leaders who are well-connected.
When Harvard Business School professor Julie Battilana and University of Toronto professor Tiziana Casciaro tracked 68 change initiatives over the course of a year, they discovered that for the most successful change agents, “personal networks—their relationships with colleagues—were critical. People who bridged disconnected groups and individuals were
more effective at implementing dramatic reforms.”
As Battilana and Casciaro put it, “Formal authority may give you the illusion of power, but informal networks always matter, whether you are the boss or a middle manager."
3. Wise Leaders are Warm.
Finally, the best leaders understand how to project both wisdom and warmth.
Although "outer smarts” are important, it’s the “inner wisdom” that separates average leaders from great ones. Good leaders, of course, know how to guide strategy, manage profits, and react intelligently to market forces. But great leaders take it one step
further: they hone in on the "human side" of leadership.
While hard skills may be important, warmth counts for a lot. As an example, a study of nearly 52,000 leaders found that only about one in 2,000 managers who were “strongly disliked” were also considered “good leaders.”
And as Amy Cuddy, Harvard Business School professor and social psychologist puts it, “Warmth is the conduit of influence. Even a few small nonverbal signals—a nod, a smile, an open gesture—can show people that you’re pleased to be in their company and attentive to their concerns. Prioritizing warmth helps you connect immediately with those around you, demonstrating that you hear them, understand them, and can be trusted by them.”
The best leaders consciously cultivate warmth because they understand its value in building genuine connections with others. And connections, as we know, are critical.
As a Leader's Power Increases, These Qualities Decrease
While communication, connection, and warmth are the hallmarks of wise leaders, these "soft skills” are extremely vulnerable to wear and tear. Alarmingly, rather than get better with time, most leaders actually become worse connectors and communicators as they rise through the ranks!
“Their ability to perceive and maintain personal connections tends to suffer a sort of psychic attrition,” says psychologist Daniel Goleman. As status rises, the ability to project warmth, connect meaningfully, and communicate effectively plummets.
“Higher-ranking individuals consistently focus their gaze less on lower-ranking people and are more likely to interrupt or to monopolize the conversation,” Goleman explains. Where leaders perceive themselves to be on the ladder dictates—and often decreases—how much attention they pay to others. This is a poisonous pattern for top leaders, whose very success depends on their ability to connect and engage with a range of people and ideas.
And yet, according to the Ken Blanchard companies, leaders may already be failing in that respect: 81% of employees say that their leaders don’t listen well, and 82% say they don’t provide appropriate feedback.5 This, of course, is bad news for organizations struggling to hang on to top talent. It's no secret that talented people leave bad leaders—55% of workers have considered leaving a job because of their boss.
Whether you’re an organization or a leader, you can't afford to ignore the value of communication, connection, and warmth—all hallmarks of wise leadership.
So What is a Wise Leader Worth?
To understand the value of wise leaders, look no further than Google— an organization of talented self-starters which, at one time, considered eliminating managers altogether.
Because their highly motivated army of employees needs very little direction in order to be successful, Google at one point asked themselves, “Do managers even matter?"
But because they have high standards of proof—and a deep respect for data—before dismantling any management positions, Google first set out to prove that managers did not make a significant impact on the organization's overall success.
And they failed.
Their multiyear research initiative, dubbed Project Oxygen, showed that "even the smallest incremental increases in manager quality were quite powerful. High-scoring managers saw less turnover on their teams than others did—and retention was related more strongly to manager quality than to seniority, performance, tenure, or promotions.” Furthermore, "employees with high-scoring bosses consistently reported greater satisfaction in multiple areas, including innovation, work-life balance, and career development.”
So yes, managers matter. Leaders matter. And the ones who matter most are the ones who are wiser than most.
The newest research into the "human side" of leadership cannot be ignored. Today, we have an unprecedented glimpse into just how valuable these skills really are, with new data emerging almost daily. That’s why Westwood International's programs seek to develop these qualities in a deeply personal way, helping smart leaders evolve into truly wise leaders.