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  • Jay Kaufman

Political Wisdom: Oxymoron or Noble Quest?

Coauthored by Jay Kaufman and Laurence Prusak

Wisdom. It’s easier to notice when it’s absent than to define.

And sadly, if not absent, the word "wisdom" is rarely heard and is only infrequently detectable in the wrangling that passes for debate in our public life. Across cultures and the centuries, wisdom has been considered the ultimate virtue. The classical Greeks stressed phronesis, a word we might translate as “practical wisdom,” acting wisely in the world, doing the right thing for the right reason.” Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln come to mind.

We could use some of that virtue today. In its place, we see appeals to credentials, data, analyses, opinion, and, worse, the invitation to be loyal and orthodox in how we think and what we do.

We’ve all had the good fortune to know some very smart people. And we’ve also brushed up against great wisdom or great acts of wisdom from otherwise ordinary people. We certainly know that lots of data and facts do not make you smart, and that not all smart people are really wise. Lots of knowledge does not wisdom make. Who among us has not had a really smart teacher who couldn’t deliver, couldn’t convey infectious curiosity, couldn’t engage, couldn’t invite us into learning.

Politicians, like teachers, come in all flavors and history confirms what we should know to expect: Wisdom is as scarce amongst those in public office as it is in the public. The people we elect are no better – and no worse – than we the people who elect them. This despite our shared desire and need for more. Maybe we should go back to seeking and honoring wisdom.

So what are the dimensions of wisdom that we should look for in those we invite to lead us? And what qualities should those of us called to serve work to nurture?

Joy in learning; curiosity in life; and compassion in all we do.

(Lexington, Massachusetts Public Schools mission statement)


While we may think we want our leaders to have all the answers, isn’t it true that our best politicians, like our best teachers, are adept at focusing us on essential questions and keeping people at the table long enough for shared answers to emerge? This requires great listening skills, being open to new ideas, and having some healthy detachment, even skepticism, about one’s own ideas and beliefs. It, of necessity, requires experimentation and improvisation, and the will to risk dead ends and missteps. It requires joy in learning, in exploring terra incognita, unknown territory, boundless curiosity.


Do we not need our leaders to be compassionate, to have a genuine caring for others, an ability to put themselves in the shoes and hearts of those they serve? Absent compassion, they may be in a position of authority but they will fail a key test of leadership. It is striking that President Obama was mocked and criticized when he said he wanted this quality in a Supreme Court nominee.


For all the attention to THE leader, wise leadership in our public life is anything but a solo sport. Doris Kearns Goodwin speaks of Abraham Lincoln’s “team of rivals” to account for the remarkable accomplishments of his administration. The ability to listen to and work with others with opposing views and the will to bring different voices together in a chorus is a mark of a wise leader and a wise citizen. Can visions and goals be clearly articulated and aligned? Is there a sense of shared accountability and responsibility? Is smart risk-taking rewarded? Are diversity and voices of dissent honored?

It ain’t what a man don’t know that makes him a fool.

It’s what he thinks he knows that just ain’t so.

(Attributed to Mark Twain)


It’s said of the wise that the older we get, the more we recognize how little we know. This helps account for the fact that politics is a sport for the young, but statecraft requires the seasoning of time. We want (and think we need) our leaders to be smarter and wiser than we are because we want them to provide us with protection, direction and order. And we want this even more in challenging times when dislocation (climate change, the great disparity of wealth and power, and a painful legacy of racial, religious and ethnic divides come to mind) is all about us. Donald Trump got elected in part because some of us fell for his promise to take worries off our hands. He had the answers, even to the questions we couldn’t quite formulate. How immodest. How inaccurate. How impossible. How undemocratic.

Cause and Course

We can aspire to wise leadership animated by a cause that is just and a course of action to pursue it effectively. Absent both a noble and ennobling purpose and the will and skill to get it done, we risk an ignoble leader or an ineffective dreamer. Henry David Thoreau spoke to this kind of leadership: When you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. Now put foundations under them. In his script for the movie “Lincoln, ” Tony Cushner wrote words the President offered to Senator Thaddeus Stevens who was berating him for his lack of a moral compass. A compass…, it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead heedless of obstacles and achieve nothing more than to sink into a swamp, what’s the use of knowing True North?

Moral compass, swamps, wisdom, indeed. In a democracy, our fate is in our advocacy and our votes. May we exercise them wisely. May we find and elect men and women who are wise – curious, compassionate, collaborative, modest, animated by just causes and effective. And may we nurture these qualities in each other and ourselves.

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