Practical Wisdom in Management Ted Malloch

Practical Wisdom in Management  explores how practical wisdom from spiritual traditions permeates corporate cultures.

The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom may be seen as bestowing (divine) purpose and meaning on the human condition and may be the ultimate driving force of all human endeavours.

But since Western Enlightenment and the progress of industrialization and modernity, only reason and knowledge are hailed as the guarantees for human advancement. On-going secularization has led to spiritual traditions being considered as seats of backwardness. Aggressive atheism (of the sort of Dawkins and his cohorts) and populist anti-Islamic feelings have portrayed all religions as either infantile ignorance of scientific progress or even dangerous regressions into intolerance.

Religions are however back in the public domain, and indeed not always in positive ways (or portrayed that way). So what have spiritual traditions to offer to modern times and particularly to business?

Thou hast taught us: in truth it is Thou who art perfect in knowledge and wisdom (Qur’an: 2/32).

The most valuable thing they have to offer is the spiritual wisdom which is at the inner (mystical) core of all religions and which recognizes universal divine revelation and human interconnectedness beyond religious doctrine and dogma. Many in the West have rediscovered this in the Eastern spiritual traditions.

But religious traditions also offer also a wealth of practical wisdom through the proverbs, tales and parables in the Holy Books, Commentaries and beyond, in the teachings on individual and social responsibility, on the relationship of the material and the immaterial in the economy, and in the oral traditions on how humans shape the world by the spirit they project on it. Practical wisdom, it can be argued, needs to guide the pursuit and application of knowledge, otherwise this pursuit can cause enormous damage.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created male and female (Genesis 1, 27).

The project of Enlightenment can be considered incomplete and modernity rudderless without a connection to the practical wisdom to be rediscovered in the spiritual traditions.

Projects on creating world ethics are very difficult to achieve without a reconnection to the deep-rooted religious traditions and their reconciliation through their teachings of wisdom.

Practical wisdom is a virtue, but at the same time, it transcends the domain of virtues and vices, of good and bad. The Muslim mystic Mevlana Jelaludin Rumi said about wisdom: “Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there” (13th century).

The financial crisis and the fear of more systemic upheaval in the global economy have ignited a debate on the value of practical wisdom in management and management education.

The root causes of the recent financial crisis have been debated extensively. Despite the assumption that abundant information had been mathematically modelled and knowledge of the working of markets had been researched, spectacular miscalculations and failures occurred. Market failures and governance failures have been listed and remedies for better regulation and more effective incentives have been devised. But has real learning taken place? And, beyond systemic failures, what about personal responsibilities?

Jesus grew both in body and in wisdom, gaining favour with God and men (Luke 2:52).

Personal failures of executives have been highlighted, and contrary to previous corporate scandals, executives in an entire industry fell victim to the temptations of excessive risk taking, greed and short-term gains with disastrous effects. The narrative of “a few rotten apples in an otherwise healthy fruit basket” does not hold. It was an entire managerial class that lost the wisdom of judgment and prudence. Not that they all behaved in immoral ways; they rather behaved without the virtue of wisdom.

Within the social traditions of the religions, the good company and a good economy is premised on an understanding of practical wisdom: that ability to discern effective means for attaining good ends in light of particular and unique circumstances.

It is ever more important to develop our understanding of this relationship among practical wisdom, virtue and business, since it is underdeveloped in current scholarship within the fields of business ethics and economics. Traditionally there has been a tendency to focus on the virtue of justice and the virtuousness of institutions without sufficient consideration of practical wisdom stemming from the personal level and extending into institutions. While the spiritual traditions themselves often articulate the premier importance of practical wisdom, contemporary scholars have tended not to develop this virtue in relationship to justice and the other moral virtues in the context of business and management. Business and management are now global realities, which affect the lives of all persons and institutions on a daily basis. Companies are the dominant institutions in our modern societies where practical wisdom is making inroads.

Within business ethics, there has been a modest revival of the idea of virtue, but in a way that is not always properly connected to the spiritual and philosophical traditions from which this idea arises. Virtues are often presented as an arbitrary list of qualities or behaviors rather than starting from practical wisdom, as the mother and form of the moral virtues. This lack of unity of thought in business ethics has left business practitioners unnecessarily unsupported when they have wanted to avoid abuse and to find a way forward in making practically wise decisions. Indeed many scholars are now talking about a movement from smart to wise companies.

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? (T.S. Elliot)

Practical wisdom in management

In my own recent textbook, Practical Wisdom in Management (Greenleaf Publishing, 2014), we present some 24 case studies that detail how companies in various religious and philosophical traditions give evidence of both spiritual capital and practical wisdom in the ways they do business. This is evident in their visions, missions, strategies, management styles, corporate cultures, and they way they make decisions and execute.

Knowledge without wisdom is like a blind man walking out in the dark with a lantern (Buddhist proverb favored by Peter Drucker).

Here are some concrete examples that bring this to life: Cargill is an old, private company founded by Presbyterians in the American Midwest, and their definition of leadership is rooted in their notion that, “our word is our bond.” The Four Seasons was founded in Toronto, Canada, in the Judaic tradition and has articulated a notion of “loving-kindness” in the way it interacts with both employees and customers. The Indian company, Infosys, has a managerial style that models consensual behavior and is rooted in Hindu practice. The Tata conglomerate is Parses and has structured its legal entities as a trust — to give back to society. The large food conveyor, Whole Foods, uses conscious capitalism in a Buddhist framework to shape its corporate thinking and strategy. Firms like Chick-fil-A are overtly Baptist and sabbatarian. Others, like Herman Miller, in the Reformed Protestant tradition emphasize respect and celebrate diversity based on their reading of the gospels on human dignity. Catholic firms like Dannon and Michelin relied on Catholic Social Thought for their general mission as business in society. Obviously, Islamic companies, especially banks, articulate a riba-free and Islamic set of principles in the way they operate. The list goes on and on and there are thousands of examples, not just a few aberrations. These companies use their faith traditions ‘to see better and do better.’ Not to be relativistic but the functional value (as opposed to the truth value) of these practices rooted in many different spiritual orientations demonstrate that transcendence and religious principles, such as honesty, gratitude and diligence, give these companies a distinct advantage and uniquely help them to succeed in business.