Moishe the Carpenter, returning home with his week’s wages, was accosted by an armed robber on a deserted street.
“Take my money,” said Moishe, “but do me a favor: shoot a bullet through my hat otherwise my wife won’t believe I was robbed.”
The robber obliged. He threw Moishe’s hat into the air and put a bullet through it.
“Let’s make it look as if I ran into a gang of robbers,” said Moishe, “otherwise my wife will call me a coward! Please shoot a number of holes through my coat.”
So the robber shot a number of holes through the carpenter’s coat.
“Sorry,” interrupted the robber. “No more holes. I’m out of bullets.”
“That’s all I wanted to know!” said Moishe. “Now hand me back my money and some more for the hat and coat that you’ve ruined or I’ll beat you black and blue!”
The robber threw down the money and ran.
So how did Moishe manage to get out of this difficult situation?
What quality did he have which helped him to save his skin?
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher defines this quality as a “master” virtue and a must for effective leadership. He calls this quality phronesis, which combines ethics and action.
Phronesis has been interpreted in different ways, “prudence” being the most common one. But the definition that I like best is “practical wisdom.” Or “common sense”.
Let us see what Aristotle has to tell about practical wisdom-:
· Practical wisdom combines action, accompanied by reason and ethics required to prevail over a difficult situation.
· It does not depend on knowledge of the person. Rather it depends on a particular situation and particular situation requires specific action.
· Practical wisdom is critical for decisions promoting Eudaimonia (Happiness or Leading a good life).
Particular situations and circumstances. Deliberation. Action. This is the stuff of practical wisdom. In a nutshell, you need to be street smart.
You have the knowledge and the experience, but can you apply it correctly in the correct situation to get the desired results.?
That is where “Practical Wisdom” is required as described by Aristotle succinctly.
Aristotle considers this as the master virtue because this is the only virtue which keeps the other virtues in “check” or in other words, in “perfect balance”. For example, too much “courage” in an impossible situation is foolishness. Similarly, loyalty can degrade into “blind obedience” if done without thinking rationally. Likewise, too much “self-confidence” can harden into stubborn ego and so on.
Thus practical wisdom “is the ability to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.”
In Book 6 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle lays out the skills and attributes a person needs to develop in order to become practically wise. According to Aristotle, practical wisdom requires the following:
Every individual has an objective which is unique to the role which they are playing in life. For example, a teacher’s role is to help students learn and enrich their minds. A pilot’s role is to make sure that he exercises utmost control over his aircraft and ensure the safety of its passengers. Likewise, a leader’s role is to make sure that objectives of the organization as well as its people are fulfilled in a satisfactory way.
Thus if you don’t understand what your objective is, you can never attain practical wisdom in your life.
Remember, Aristotle tells us that practical wisdom depends on a particular situation and particular situation requires specific action. To know how to act in a particular situation, we need to deftly perceive and understand the circumstances before us. What are the facts in this case? What’s the history here? How do others feel about it?
Thus, profound wisdom is of no use if it cannot be used or tailored effectively to suit a particular situation.
Aristotle believed that an understanding of absolute truth was necessary in order to be practically wise. Absolute truths act as boundaries for us while we exercise practical wisdom. Understanding absolutes require an informed intellect. This gives us the necessary data to slice and dice and come up with a meaningful decision which ultimately brings Eudaimonia to all.
Thus, Practical wisdom does not mean “on-the-spot” gut-feeling decisions. It means decisions which have been vetted by past history and correct assessment of the situation.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that “practical wisdom is also of particulars, which come to be known as a result of experience, but a young person is inexperienced: a long period of time creates experience.”
Aristotle firmly believed that practical wisdom could only be gained through experience. He often likened practical wisdom to a skill like carpentry or masonry. You can’t just read a book about carpentry and expect to become a master carpenter.
You become more and more practically wise the more decisions you make. The more you experience, the more you learn from your experiences. Learning from bitter experiences and then making informed decisions is the sign of a remarkably effective leader.
According to Aristotle, “the person skilled in identifying multiple options would in general also be practically wise.” The heart of practical wisdom is deliberation. Practical wisdom requires that we deliberate with ourselves the best course of action to take in a given situation. It’s a skill that we become more adept at through experience.
And of course, all the reasoning and deliberation would be a waste of time if we do not act on it. Over and over again in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that “practical wisdom is bound up with action.” It’s not enough to know what the correct thing to do is, you must actually do it.
As organizations have become more complex, specialized, and bureaucratic, the opportunity to exercise practical wisdom has increasingly been replaced with reliance on rules, regulations, and incentives to achieve our goals. But rules don’t always work as intended.
Leaders should always ensure that Rules and processes should be powerful enough to command discipline and commitment but at the same time, they should be flexible and nimble to act effectively in unforeseen or unusual circumstances.
Inspect, Adapt and then Act is the mantra to succeed as an effective leader and this needs to be practiced repeatedly to attain excellence.
As Aristotle has rightly said:
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
About the author-:
Ravi Rajan is a global IT program manager based out of Mumbai, India. He is also an avid blogger, Haiku poetry writer, archaeology enthusiast and history maniac. Connect with Ravi on LinkedIn, Medium and Twitter.
Originally published at medium.com