Lots of white noise fills the air in today’s conversations about leadership. Good leaders, we are told, must be honest yet politically savvy, visionary yet grounded, omnicompetent but not too intimidating, well-connected yet not overly swayed by mass opinion, a great communicator and a wonderful listener, humble yet bold. The list goes on. Leadership, says Warren Bennis, “is the most studied and least understood topic of any I can think of.”
Maybe it’s because we try too hard to make it pure science when there is a lot more art behind it. Practicing the art of leadership is far more than the ability to constantly balance the tension between inspiring people and getting tasks accomplished. In today’s highly networked institutions, successful leaders seem less like outstanding visionary personalities and more like symphony conductors that can extract greatness from many individual talents to produce meaningful, moving harmony. True artists create beautiful or significant things through superior skill and sensitivity acquired by study, practice and observation of others in their field. Great artists know when to select the right tool (or word, approach, person, instrument or color palette) to achieve their desired outcome.
Let’s listen in on a conversation between two of the greatest leadership artists in history: Israel’s king David and his son Solomon. Solomon recounts: “When I was a son with my father, tender, the only one in the sight of my mother, he taught me and said to me, ‘Let your heart hold fast to my words, keep my commandments and live…. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.‘” (Proverbs 4:3-7)
If wisdom is so crucial to the art of leadership, what is it? Wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge of what is true and right with experience and common sense. This ability results in the right people doing the right things for the right reasons at the right time.
Insight also plays a critical role in shaping the art of leadership. Insight is a clear perception (and often sudden understanding) of a complex situation. You know you’re around someone with insight when she exhibits penetrating discernment into underlying character or truth in a situation.
Both wisdom and insight have a lot to do with a leader’s vision — that vivid mental image of what things will look like after we’ve done our work well.
Do you want to ply well the art of leadership? Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight!