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The Wise Leader in a Premodern Context

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The Leadership of Experience

Even when a man or woman is not formally educated and prepared to become a leader, he or she may attain this status as a result of substantial experience in the field or organization. Harold has been selling real estate for 30 years. He knows the market in this city better than anyone. He certainly deserves to be the new managing director of this agency. Susan opened this organic food store twenty years ago – long before “green” became “golden.” She is not only the owner of this store, she is also the undisputed leader of this store. Everyone turns to her for advice and she makes all of the key decisions regarding new products, marketing and displays—despite the fact that she only comes to the store two days a week (having gown a little weary of the daily drag of operating the store). Richard has been a farmer for many years. His father and mother owned a farm and Richard grew up feeding chickens, operating and repairing farm equipment, and listening every morning to the farm reports on the local radio station. He is now working for a large agri-business operation—yet he is still turned to for advice. Through his stories and sage observations Richard still holds the attention and respect of men and women much younger than himself. He is an informal leader of the organization, even if many other people occupy positions of management at higher levels in his organization.

What kind of experience seems to be important? We tend to value both breadth and depth of experience. We look for wisdom in someone who has “seen it all”—meaning that he or she has not remained in one place for many years, doing only one thing repeatedly. Twenty years of experience is not assigned much validity if this person has learned everything in one year and simply repetitively enacted this year of experience for twenty years. We also tend to look for wisdom among those who can reflect back on and articulate their rich experiences. They are often brilliant story-tellers, even if they usually remain rather quiet (unless asked to provide advice or guidance). These men and women often are natural (and informally-designated) mentors. They enjoy teaching those who are younger or less experienced. They take great delight in seeing other people succeed as a result of sharing their expertise and tend to view these younger or less experienced people as protégés rather than rivals. We talk in psychology about the shift in attention from personal success (one’s own accomplishments) to a sense of collective significance (the accomplishments of other people or one’s family, group or society).

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