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Presentation at ILA (International Leadership Association) Global Conference 2022 in Washington

15 oktober 2022

The Battle for Wisdom in Leaders

Presentation and start of Round Table Discussion by Steven P.M. de Waal at the 24th ILA (International Leadership Association) Global Conference ‘Wisdom in times of crises’ in Washington D.C. USA.

This is the third year in a row that De Waal initiates a round table discussion at the annual ILA global conference.

The first time was in Ottawa, Canada (2019) about his last book, ‘Civil Leadership as the Future of Leadership. Harnessing the disruptive power of citizens’ (Amazon, 2018). Following this book his main topic for the debate was the influence of the new media- and ICT- technologies on the public arena and so on public leadership. His main thesis for discussion there was: ‘Do you agree that at this point most leaders, both political and private, deny and ignore this new power of citizens and so make the same mistake as we saw in disruption of markets?’.

The second time was in Geneva, Switzerland (2021), due to the covid19 pandemic in a hybrid fashion, both physical and virtual. Fortunately he could have a physical round table with a lot of attendees. Here his main question was if in this new public arena rhetorics are more dominant in success of public leaders than character or values or purpose. His main – publicly known – examples for the discussion were Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Greta Thunberg and Jacinda Ardern.

In this upcoming conference, in Washington DC (2022), he initiates a discussion, following the main theme of the conference, in the first place about the philosophical concept of ‘wisdom in leaders’ and then about the question if (enough) followers will recognize and support some wisdom (and, given the philosophical history, what kind of wisdom do they prefer?) in their leaders? The philosophical questions are coming from a century old search for ‘wisdom’ and are here especially aimed at the best way to define, research and develop wisdom in future leaders. The second element in the discussion is again connected to the new battle for public authority and leadership in the new public arena, as analyzed in the book. Wisdom in leaders is defined and accepted by followers, not academics, especially so in this new public arena with much more power of citizens (in democracies that is). So the main question for the discussion will be: Will (future) followers, who define and show their spontaneous support for and ultimately follow their leaders, really reward wisdom in their leaders?

Paper submitted by Steven P.M. de Waal for the upcoming edition of the ILA Gobal Conference:

Will ‘wise persons’ be chosen, accepted, or recognised as our future leaders?

The invitation to the 2022 ILA annual conference has a short description of what is meant by wisdom in leaders. This shows ‘wisdom’ mainly as a moral approach, as well as a well intended and values-based attitude aimed at bringing people and societies to a ‘better future.’ It even talks about system change, creative and generative futures of ‘all systems, all peoples and all nature.’ Probably no one will be against this hopeful vision. The main question then is whether there is enough support out there for this vision of future leaders.

In my view, this short introduction puts (too much of) an emphasis on personal character and attitude as being the reasons why ‘wise’ persons should be our future leaders. This looks like the promotion of Plato of ‘philosopher kings’ [Ebenstein&Ebenstein 2000], which is close to benevolent dictatorship or soft despotism [De Tocqueville, 2002]. The main question then is: Will these ‘wise persons’ be chosen, accepted, or recognised as our future leaders? That means that (enough) followers, who define and recognise their leaders, must have the same definition and appreciation of wisdom in their leaders as these members of the International Leadership Association.
In this question for discussion, I make a connection with the modern public arena, revolutionary changed due to the new information- and mediatechnologies, and the battle for (public) leadership in that arena. That public battle shows the dominant view about what people recognise as leadership. Leadership is recognised, criticized and even chosen (in democracies that is) in the public arena, so the dominant vision on leadership can be observed there. We could call it a social constructivist vision on leadership. This same vision applies to the concept of ‘wisdom.’ This point of discussion, rests on an Aristotelian view on ‘practical wisdom’ (phronesis) [Aristotle’s Nichomean Ethics, 2011, Den Uijl, 2022] as a wisdom to come to choices and decisions that address all kinds of questions, both morally and aimed at ‘a flourishing life for all’ (eudaimonia), but balancing this with all kinds of strategic, financial and human elements. Ultimately these choices and decisions are in connection with ‘governance’ as description of the relevant context of most executives in public and private organisations. As a consequence, this same vision on and definition of leadership often applies to leadership in private circles, like corporations, public and civil society organizations.

The problem to discuss arises along the following lines of reasoning:

  • Leadership is defined (and recognised) by followers, not by academics. The followers now have, thanks to the technological revolution in information and media [De Waal, 2018] the (still increasing) power of collective opinion making, bottom-up organising and data collection, exchange and knowledge (some speak, very appropriately here, of ‘the wisdom of the crowds’)[Surowiecki, 2005]. This is influencing how they view and define leadership and also on what grounds leaders are competing for their attention and approval. The most obvious place to observe this is in the new public arena, ranging from examples like Donald Trump to Jacinda Ardern and from Boris Johnson to Greta Thunberg. This more public battle for leadership and public authority is influencing people’s idea of what leadership is and what the best kind of leadership is for themselves and for their company or their country. This modern battle for public authority also applies to academic authority! Academia can define leadership for its own scientific purposes, but its authority is not great enough to automatically dominate the more general and public view and definition of leadership that many people use.
  • This leads to the next question: Will ‘wisdom’ be one of the main characteristics these followers will reward in their acceptance and admiration of leaders? This has two sides. On the one hand, do the followers see and acknowledge that they need more ‘wisdom’ in their leaders? On the other hand, do persons in (potential) leadership positions who try to get people’s attention and approval embrace this attitude of ‘wisdom’?
  • In the end, this leads to the question about other characteristics. Than only ‘wisdom’ people search for in their leaders. This is about the boundaries of ‘good character’ and ‘right values’ in getting acceptance as a leader from these modern followers. You need more than just good intentions and a good attitude, you must also have skills and (other) personality traits that enable you to get the ‘right’ results. Skills and traits you need to have are ‘focus and determination on reaching results,’ ‘knowing how to play forces of power and use your position’ and ‘having rhetorical skills to convince relevant audiences’. Don’t wise leaders need some ‘bad’ skills and attitudes, to succeed in getting this recognition as leaders? It is what Barbara Kellerman called the question of ‘whether the end justifies the means’ [Kellerman, 2004]. It is the centuries old discussion about the theories of Machiavelli [Antony Jay, 1967]. Machiavelli himself was nuanced about the relation between (political) power and virtue, like ‘prudence,’ which comes close to ‘wisdom’ [Niccolò Machiavelli, 1996]. We now see that kind of perception on leadership when people can choose their leaders, although this is of course often not the case in companies. Although the new public arena certainly has increased the influence of followers on the term in office of (some) executives, as can be seen in the impact of #MeToo cases worldwide. In the case of democracies we see that people not necessarily choose the most competent, honest, or ‘wise’ leader. It even seems, as we discussed at the 2021 ILA conference in Geneva, that the modern public arena mainly promotes the rhetorical skills in leaders over what is here called ‘wisdom’.

The purpose of initiating this discussion is:
– to further the debate about ‘wise leadership’
– to make it more societally and politically relevant
– to influence leadership development programs that aim to further develop ‘wisdom in leaders.’



  • Ebenstein & Ebenstein ‘Great Political Thinkers. Plato to the Present’, Chapter 3, Wadworth Boston 2000
  • De Tocqueville ‘Democracy in America’, Chapter 6, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2002
  • Aristotle ‘Nichomean Ethics’, Translated by Bartlett & Collins, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2011
  • Den Uijl ‘Practical Wisdom in Governance’, The Netherlands School of Public Administration, The Hague 2022
  • De Waal ‘Civil Leadership as the Future of Leadership. Harnessing the disruptive power of citizens’, Warden Press, Amsterdam 2018
  • Surowiecki ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’, Random House, New York 2005
  • Kellerman ‘Bad leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters’, Harvard Business School Press, Boston 2004
  • Jay ‘Management and Machiavelli’, Business Books, London 1967
  • Machiavelli ‘Discourses on Livy’, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1996
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