How to Evolve from Smart Leader to Wise Leader

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Prasad Kaipa and Navi Radjou

The Smart Leader Our leadership perspective is based on the sum total of the knowledge, experiences, and choices we made before. It defines us, shaping our thoughts, decisions, and actions. It represents the way we see ourselves and situations, how we judge the relative importance of things, and how we establish a meaningful relationship with others and everything around us.

Smart leaders tend to look at the world through colored lenses that skew or limit their perspective, which affects their decisions and actions. Some have a perspective that's narrowly focused on short-term goals, deepening their depth of knowledge in their domain of interest. Other smart leaders are guided by broadly focused long-term visions that help them differentiate various patterns and understand how these will help them succeed. Both perspectives are limiting.

When they remove those lenses, smart leaders can gain a broader perspective. By changing their “smart” perspective and cultivating practical wisdom instead, they can lay the foundation for a wise leadership style that's more effective.

The Wise Leader
What is a wise leader perspective? Wise leaders are able to continually reframe and reinterpret events through integration and find new meanings within a rapidly changing context. Guided by a noble purpose, they develop a flexible and resilient mindset that makes them act and lead with wisdom—and become more influential leaders.

To move from a smart leader perspective to a wise leader perspective, start by seeing the world differently. Here are six ways to do it:

  • Become aware of your limitations and transcend them
    Senior managers at Allianz Global Investors, a global asset management company, attended a workshop called Dialogue in the Dark, led by visually impaired trainers who conducted the entire workshop in total darkness. The goal of this experiential learning program was to shift leaders’ perspectives by making them aware of their limitations, while increasing empathy for others. What is your biggest limitation today? How did you acquire it and how do you plan to transcend it?
  • Learn from desperation and spark epiphanies
    High desperation can spark epiphanies, so pay attention to what your next crisis has to teach you about perspective. While in a WWII German concentration camp for three years, Victor Frankl realized one day that although the Nazis could torture his body, they had zero control over his mind or spirit. This empowering shift in perspective helped him survive and then to inspire his fellow prisoners to take control of their own mind-set. What is the fear or high desperation that you are attempting to run away from? How do you pay attention to it so that you can walk through the other side of desperation and discover something very new?
  • Take inspiration from talks, books, or articles
    The CEO of a well-known tech firm attended a talk on service-oriented organizations, including the generosity-driven Karma Kitchen, where anyone can eat for free in exchange for committing to volunteer in the restaurant in the future. He was so inspired by the talk that he acted completely out of character and drove straight to the hospital to spend four hours at the bedside of his 80-year-old neighbor. When were you last inspired by a talk or a book? What actions did you take?
  • Take an extreme turn—out of your comfort zone
    Getting outside your comfort zone is a quick, effective way to experience leadership from a new perspective. In early 2000, while awaiting the court decision in the antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, Bill Gates decided to step down as chief executive and focus on his passion for software. This jolted his perspective, and that same year, Gates and his wife established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, taking his leadership in an important new direction. Are you holding on to an old and unworkable mindset? What extreme step you can take to experience and lead yourself differently?
  • Ditch your old glasses and look through fresh eyes
    Sometimes shifting one's perspective is as simple as really seeing what’s in front of you. When Alan Mulally took over as CEO of Ford, the company was losing market share and facing deep losses because of increased competition and globalization. One day, when walking through the Ford parking lot at Detroit headquarters, Mulally suddenly noticed the hodgepodge of Ford brands that had no common attributes in shape or style. This moment of clear-sightedness led to Ford’s trimming its bloated portfolio of 97 models to just 20, selling off Jaguar, Land Rover, and Aston Martin in the process, and focusing on smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. What do you need to “unlearn and let go” so that increased focus on your business could make you very effective and successful?
  • Pursue unlikely connections and look for odd juxtapositions
    Ophthalmologist Dr. Venkataswamy, or “Dr. V,” created a revolutionary approach to curing blindness in India by studying McDonald’s. He was able to develop a high-efficiency, standardized, repeatable business model that organized patients in operating rooms and broke the procedure down into a series of discrete processes so that nurses and doctors could quickly move from one patient to the next. His company, Aravind, is now the largest eye care provider in the world. What unlikely metaphors and connections can help you come up with an innovative mental model and a business model for your work?

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About the Author(s)

Prasad Kaipa and Navi Radjou Prasad Kaipa and Navi Radjou are coauthors of the new book From Smart to Wise: Acting and Leading with Wisdom (Jossey-Bass) from which this article was adapted. Kaipa is a CEO advisor and coach and a senior fellow at the Indian School of Business. Radjou is an independent strategy consultant. Based in Silicon Valley, they write popular blogs for For more information, visit