Making Room for Wisdom

By Meryl Herr

April 2, 2024

“One day when he was out walking, he came to an open place in the middle of the forest, and in the middle of this place was a large oak-tree, and, from the top of the tree, there came a loud buzzing-noise. Winnie-the-Pooh sat down at the foot of the tree, put his head between his paws and began to think.” – A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh

I don’t know about you, but there are days I wish I could step away from my desk for an extended time, drive to the local park, find a beautiful spot, and sit and think. Sometimes I can find a few minutes for a quick stroll in my neighborhood or a few deep breaths in my front porch rocking chair. But more often, the challenges of work, family, and leadership require more time and space to think than my schedule allows. Or perhaps that I allow.

In a busybody culture in which we prize productivity, performance, and even perfection, it can be difficult to make room for cultivating wisdom. For example, throughout my career, I’ve struggled to know how to serve others and their organizations without enmeshing my sense of identity and calling in theirs. I can’t scroll through my Instagram feed for a quick fix or a recipe for success. Instead, I have to discern—with the help of the Spirit and those who love me well—where I’m most prone to enmeshment. And I have to listen to my life. All of that takes intentionality. None of it can be rushed.

Uli Chi writes in his forthcoming book The Wise Leader, “Wisdom is neither inborn nor learned casually. It takes deliberate and difficult choices to form the character of a person who would be wise.” Wisdom is the deep understanding or insight that develops as we faithfully try to integrate what we believe to be true about God with our everyday experience. But wisdom isn’t something that merely lives in our heads. As Uli Chi argues, wisdom is something we embody. We develop it through interaction with the world, and then we must figure out how to live what we’ve learned. This sort of integration requires reflection and a bit of reckoning with how we understand the world and ourselves in it.

As Uli Chi argues, wisdom is something we embody. We develop it through interaction with the world, and then we must figure out how to live what we’ve learned.

Three Practices That Make Room for Wisdom

Sometimes our roles and responsibilities make it challenging to get away for an extended time of careful consideration. But we can be creative in carving out smaller pockets that may give us the space we need to develop wisdom. As we have interviewed Christian marketplace leaders for our research at the De Pree Center, we have observed that many leaders have regular practices that help them cultivate wisdom. The good news is that none of these practices requires a tremendous amount of effort. But each requires intentionality.

Prepare

Some leaders begin their day with a time of preparation. Sandra is an experienced Fortune 500 executive. Every morning, she wakes up two hours before her first appointment so that she can take a full hour to be still. She has no agenda for that time. She sits; pays attention to what’s arising in her body; and opens herself up to inspiration. She described it as a spiritual practice, almost like a centering prayer.

In our research, we’ve also learned about an organization that invites all of its employees—hourly, salaried, and even some contractors—to begin the day with 30 minutes of silence. They can use that time however they please, but there’s no expectation that they’re available for meetings, responding to emails, or ticking off items on their “to-do” list during that time. Some people may use the time for prayer or devotional reading. Others may choose to sit quietly. The point is they start their day with space that can be used to cultivate wisdom.

Pull Back

Justin is the CFO of a company in the real estate industry. When we interviewed him, he described the soaring costs of construction as a major stressor for himself and his organization. Yet he had discovered a way to handle that stress: “pull back and find some space.” It’s something he and his team picked up from a leadership coach. To pull back and find some space means “to create space between a stimulus or stressor and the response. Sometimes that’s a half-a-second or less, and sometimes the more we can make that space bigger, the more we have time to react in a way that is helpful.” That space between stimulus and response is enough for wisdom to begin to form or rise to the surface and shape our actions and attitudes.

Pray

Some leaders pray not only to start their days but also in those half-seconds before they’re about to engage in something challenging at work. Victoria, a seasoned human resources consultant and professor, told us how her father instilled in her the importance of prayer from an early age. To this day, she prays about her work. She prays to ask God to help her navigate the challenges of being a Black woman and navigating stereotypes and biases. She also prays before regular activities in the course of her work

Before I have a business meeting, before I have a class, before I have a conversation with a potential client or an associate, I go to the Lord in prayer, even if it’s a quick prayer. Lord, hold my tongue, guide my mind, guide my thoughts, direct my responses, because I know, again, that there is no goodness inside of me, the goodness that I portray, all of that’s the Lord.

Victoria’s prayers are bids for wisdom.

Start with Small Spaces

These three practices show us that it’s possible to cultivate wisdom by starting small. And we don’t even have to leave our desks, offices, or homes. The apostle James encourages us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5, NRSV). The verse doesn’t say anything about the length or the location for seeking wisdom.

Still, I wonder what could happen on our quest for wisdom if we could sit under the shade of a mighty tree, put our heads in our hands, and think for a while. When Walt Disney Studios brought Winnie-the-Pooh to the screen in animated form, they gave him a “Thotful Spot” where he could think and work out his questions and curiosities. Over the years, my thoughtful spots have been neighborhood sidewalks, a grassy lakeside, and a tree-lined trail. Cultivating wisdom has begun with making room in my heart, and it’s spread to making room on my calendar.

Cultivating wisdom has begun with making room in my heart, and it’s spread to making room on my calendar.

Our Focus on Wisdom

We’re turning our attention to wisdom for the next few months because wisdom is both an input and output of living and working in a distinctively Christian way. Like King Solomon, we pursue wisdom because it’s what’s needed most to serve the people entrusted to our care. Join us as we learn to cultivate wisdom—and don’t forget to order Uli Chi’s book, The Wise Leader.

Meryl Herr

Director of Research and Resources

Dr. Meryl Herr is the Director of Research and Resources at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership where she designs and conducts research studies that add to the understanding of what helps marketplace leaders flourish. She also oversees the conversion of research findings into resources that...

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