Choosing the right Leader – Wisdom and Leadership

“… if there is anything the world needs, it is wisdom … without it, I exaggerate not at all in saying, that very soon, there may be no world …” Sternberg, Robert J

Lisa Ashton, BIOSS Southern Africa

As the geopolitical situation of the world-over spins out of control, investors, governments and leaders at all levels are questioning how best to position their governments, their organisations and institutions in order to survive the growing global turmoil.

There are few business decisions that matter as much as the choice of leader. Experience has taught us that the stakes of leadership decisions are greatest at the most senior levels of an organisation. Traditionally organisations tend to evaluate an individuals’ track record and his or her past performance at more junior levels in order to make decisions regarding promotion or to make executive appointments. Our research has proven that assessment methods that examine knowledge, capabilities and past relationships are not sufficient to predict how a senior leader might perform in future roles, where the level and the nature of the work is more complex, more ambiguous and more strategic in nature. (Refer to the work of BIOSS relating to Levels of Work and Levels of Decision-making).

So, what is the difference between executives who can continually develop and excel at the highest levels of a business and those who can’t? Our research has revealed surprising results.

What is required?

Comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty – this relates to an individual’s ability to deal with complex problems and little information. CEO’s and other executives require a capacity to make decisions and be successful in new, unfamiliar, uncertain and complex situations. Success in CEO positions is no longer about being the expert in any particular business or functional area.  Rather, success requires the capability to produce big-picture insights from complex and disparate information, as well as an ability to see situations from multiple perspectives and think systemically. At BIOSS we use the Career Path Appreciation to understand this capability.

Cognitive skills and business insight – CEO’s must have a capacity to deal with complex and ambiguous phenomena in complex environments. They need to be rational and deep thinkers, have the capacity to seek out the “facts” of a situation and deal with them logically. However, they also need to understand and question their assumptions and where the facts originated from.

They need to display or encourage creativity, and draw on the non-rational judiciously as appropriate, drawing on the capacity to acknowledge the potential worth of their own instincts in making judgements. They need to be able to see the connection between external trends and the implications for core business.

Successful CEO’s have nuanced understandings of major societal forces, and know where and how to respond in a way that benefits their business and the wider world they operate within. They also display long term vision and virtue, having a proven commitment to the long term welfare of not just immediate stakeholders, but of the society they operate within.

Finally, they have a high degree of learning agility which allows them to change how they think and act in light of new information.

Interpersonal skills – Successful CEO’s and Executives have strong social skills, self-control and emotional autonomy. They are able to collaborate and engage in multi-stakeholder collaboration with unconventional partners and many different stakeholders. They tend to be emotionally intelligent and show the ability to read and respond to others’ emotional state so as to ensure constructive interaction.

They are able to engage in dialogue in order to understand and empathise with groups and communities with perspectives contrary to their own. They use language and symbols effectively and are able to influence mind-sets and culture. They are able to lead change beyond business boundaries and know how to recognise and reward positive new behaviours and outcomes.

Openness and reflectiveness –Successful CEO’s and Executives possess self-knowledge; they are introspective and have knowledge of their own limits. They tend to be mindful and are attuned to the world around them. They are open to new ideas and possibilities and are comfortable with changing work environments.

Presence – Successful Executives tend to be articulate and have a proven capacity to reach people through word, affect and action. They display self-control, are able to suspend judgement, have the courage of their convictions and persist in the face of vested interests. They are also able to create the conditions that enable leadership to emerge and ensure support where needed.

Introducing a new generation of leader: The Wise Leader

The time for a new generation of leaders has already come. From the discussion above, it is clear that the wise leader understands that s/he does not have all the answers; that they cannot sustain the organisation on their own, and they understand the limits of human cognition. They are prepared for the unexpected, they hold the torch of hope high when things are uncertain, and they build resilience in their people.

Wise leaders are attuned to the world around them and they ensure this by listening with interest to both the spoken and unspoken words of people who they work with, the customers they serve and the communities in which they exist. They distribute decision-making down and around. They make sure that the experts get heard, not just the boss. They listen, they suspend judgement, they co-operate and co-create, and they communicate.   Successful leaders are “mindful” and better able to detect surprises when they are new, small and insignificant.

The wise leader works towards creating long-term outcomes by crafting well-considered and co-created images of the future. They do this through dialogue and quality conversations and understand that it is these co-created images of the future that guide choices and goal directed behaviour.

They make people feel respected, trusted, worthy and honoured – and most of all, they encourage and inspire others to become a better version of themselves.

Wise leaders understand their work within the context of the planet, the world, the communities they operate in and the people they serve. They are aware that their work and businesses impact people, societies and the environment and they strive towards “doing no harm”, being fair, ethical and responsible. They lead people towards a more co-operative, humane and positive future!


At BIOSS we are able to measure executives against the abovementioned traits and we provide rich detail on an individual’s potential to develop beyond current levels of experience and know-how. As a result, our assessments look beyond the executive capabilities a leader has today, and provide sight of the capabilities he or she is most able to develop in future – and in what time frame. This facilitates insight into how we can develop individuals with the potential to be great executives and CEO’s, into leaders who actually perform at those levels.