What a ‘wise’ board director is

Wisdom is born out of controlling lower ground thinking by the discipline of higher ground thinking—the word discipline is noteworthy.

R. Gopalakrishnan*

Email: rgopal@themindworks.me

(*The writer is an author and corporate advisor. He is Distinguished Professor of IIT Kharagpur. He was Director of Tata Sons and Vice Chairman of Hindustan Unilever).

Wisdom is born out of controlling lower ground thinking by the discipline of higher ground thinking—the word discipline is noteworthy.

Corporations need ‘wise’ directors, but wisdom is not necessarily present in a person with many years of experience. Wisdom is like a muscle. It must be identified and worked on to improve it. You surely know all of this, dear reader, and so do I. But I have always wondered what wise means. This is a philosophical subject, difficult to cover in a short article. 

I was presented a book by Art Kleiner, a distinguished writer and editor, titled The Wise Advocate; the book had been co-authored by him with two well-matched professionals: Jeffrey Schwartz, a research psychiatrist at UCLA School of Medicine and expert on brain neuroplasticity, and Josie Thomson, an award-winning executive coach. It describes the ‘inner voice of strategic leadership’, shedding light on what wisdom is and explains the brain processes that promote wisdom. By visiting the confluence of neuroscience, psychology and good writing, the reader learns something new. 

The Wise Advocate refers to Low Ground (transactional thinking) and High Ground (strategic thinking). These approximately conform to Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 (=works quickly and with no effort) and System 2 thinking (=allocates attention for effortful thinking).  The expressions ‘low’ and ‘high’ are not a judgment of quality, rather they denote the location of the brain circuit as you stand erect, low being at a lower level and the high at a higher level in the brain—technically, ventral for lower and dorsal for higher. The activity occurs in a circuit and not in an organ. The book traces neuron circuits, quite interesting for the curious. 

Our first response to a situation or problem emanates from the lower transactional level. Higher strategic thinking kicks in after deep reflection and analysis and modifies the low ground perspective through two skills:  mindfulness (means reflection and analysis) and mentalizing (feeling how the other person feels). Mindfulness and mentalizing are important attributes of the strategic thinking process. Examples:

  • When South Africa achieved independence, most of the ANC leaders desired that the all- white, national Rugby team, Springboks, be renamed to signal the end of apartheid. Nelson Mandela insisted on keeping the name and himself wore a Springboks jersey during the World Cup. High ground thinking. 
  • When Pakistan was created as a nation for some Muslims, the Indian Constitution was framed around the traditional concept of ‘vasudeiva kutumbam’. Our leaders did not desire, and still do not, that India should be a Hindu state. High ground thinking.
  • When Jamsetji Tata said as early as in the 1890s “In a free enterprise, the community is not just another stakeholder in business, but, is, in fact, the very purpose of its existence,” it was high ground thinking.
  • During the late 1980s, employees at Unilever’s tea estate in Doom Dooma, Assam faced a life threat unless Unilever would pay money to a local outfit. Unilever’s polite refusal would have consequences. To avert danger to the employees, the HUL board dramatically airlifted the employees and families from Doom Dooma. That action was based on high ground thinking.
  • For decades, Tata Chemicals sought ‘natural soda ash’ to augment its production of ‘synthetic soda ash.’ In the early 2000s, the Tanzanian government offered a project to mine natural soda ash from their Lake Natron. The company directors enthusiastically authorized the management to explore the opportunity. After spending several million dollars and management time over five years, management and board stumbled on the possibility that mining Lake Natron can affect an endangered bird called “little flamingo”. Applying the precautionary principle, the board canned the project. This was high ground thinking.

The world today is dominated by low ground thinking. Wisdom is born out of controlling the lower ground thinking by the discipline of the higher ground thinking—the word discipline is noteworthy! Metaphorically, the mind is noisy and jerky, like an engine. The intellect is like the transmission system that smoothly guides energy to the wheels.

Remarkably, neuro-research says what Vedanta said centuries ago. Humans have a mind, which is the seat of impulsive and emotional thoughts and an intellect, which is the seat of rational and reflective thoughts.  Vedanta advises that intellect should control the mind. Swami A Parthasarathy’s 2010 book, Governing Business and Relationships, explains how to practice wisdom. 

Every aspiring director could receive some training to be wise, maybe read at least one of these two books. I have read both before making my recommendation. The organizers of courses for board directors would add great value by adding a session on wisdom.