How Spiritual Discernment in Wisdom Traditions, East and West, Complement Strategic Decision Making

April 12, 2001

Andre L. Delbecq, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California, USA

Simon Fraser University Vancouver (at Harbour Centre)

Strategic Decision-making, a major leadership task

Summary by Ms Virginia Langdon

The life of an executive is primarily filled with complex decision-making, and the issues or problems requiring those decisions are often muddy and unclear. Those problems are also filled with political and emotional overtones that leave others confused. The leader is challenged with how to look into the future, and how to engage followers, all of whom have differing points of view.

Successful leaders who manage to deal with those complexities are persons with a higher level of moral functioning, and a higher degree of individual integration or integrity. James Kouzes and Barry Posner recognized those characteristics about leaders in their book, "The Leadership Challenge". In his survey of senior leaders, Ian Mitroff found that 88% of respondents said, "Unless you operate from a deep inner core, you will fail at that level of leadership".

In management studies, western literature recognizes those aspects of leadership and have documented them, but we have not felt it necessary to consider them in the strategic decision-making process. The deep "inner core" aspects of leadership have been recognized in the literature of Transformational Leadership, but have not been included by the decision-making scientists in the study of business management.

Dialogue of Theologians and Wisdom Scholars at Santa Clara University, California, March 2001
Just recently we (in the West) recognized the need to better understand the wisdom tradition and how to integrate the characteristics of that thinking into our strategic decision-making. As a step toward reaching that understanding , a recent meeting of leading theologians and wisdom scholars was convened three weeks ago at Santa Clara University. This preliminary report reflects the content of those discussions. That meeting opened discussion on this topic, but study and discussion will continue.

We invited leaders representing religions including, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, Islamic Jewish and Hindu. The focus of their discussion was on, " looking at the results of overlaying the elements of the wisdom tradition on strategic decision-making."

In this presentation I will use as a background my own Christian religion referencing the Tao and Buddhist traditions. When you examine those religious approaches you find the protocols for accessing basic fundamental wisdom. They use deep broad suggestive approaches, but how do we describe this ?
Definition of A Strategic Decision.

Before going down that road I'd like to define strategic decision-making.. A strategic decision is a decision where you don't know the means or ends. It is not possible to conceptualize or map it in an a-priori sense. The means are unclear and the end evolves over time and keeps changing.

Assumptions of the Wisdom Tradition

The dichotomy between the secular and spiritual is false. Spirit inhabits creation. In Taoist terms the deep essence of nature is there. Through reflection and prayer we need to discover the voice of deep reality in the "everydayness" that we struggle with. Then, we need to listen to that deep voice, so we can discriminate and see what is lightness and what is darkness. Tradition invites one to listen to that deep voice that is attendant to all the elements of life as opposed to being absorbed or blinded by a technical interpretation of the reality with which we struggle.

Why is this topic important ?

Why is there increased interest in the topic of spirituality and the wisdom traditions ? Why does it matter? In the year 2001 more than 50% of strategic decisions fail in the implementation stage. Paul Nutt from Ohio State University (who is a member of the Santa Clara Dialogue Group) has found that 77% of the implementation of complex decision-making action fails.

Reasons for the high rate of failure proposed by contemporary decision-making scientists.
1. The first reason for failure stems from the leader exerting an over reliance on self. Leaders feel alone and assume they must think their way through the problem. This attitude creates an imbalance in thinking and the leader often becomes increasingly anxious leading to cynicism, blaming others, and demonstrating a lack of courage. This imbalance can also push the leader to abandon an important effort which may have the elements of truth in it, but the leader can't see it.
The Wisdom Tradition would argue that there are paths for approaching the problem which rely on keeping in touch with the true nature of things; that you don't have to over-extend yourself; that you should sleep well; and that the process will unfold with the guidance of a god that is faithful.
An example of a person believing in that philosophy can be seen by looking at the experience of Len Luckchow, CEO of Jossey-Bass, publisher who was meeting with the Murdock group preparing a hostile take-over of Jossey-Bass. When Luchchow was questioned about preparing for that meeting he replied, "I took a long hot bath, went to bed early, and rested well in preparation for the next day".
That is a man who can implement the wisdom approach because of a deep centered self which has retained integrity. He is able to enter into a complex circumstance and does not feel that what unfolds depends on his individual anxious effort.

2. The second reason for failed implementation of strategic decisions is that other people are largely excluded from the process. The immature leader makes a premature commitment to appear to be in control. He/she feels it's better to take action and be wrong than not to take action at all. Informants who helped with previous decisions and were part of failure-prone practices, are frequently recruited to help again even though their previous involvement led to failure.

The leader thinks the problem is a system issue which means the solution will be found if controls are put in place and compliances are agreed to. An example of implementing this philosophy was the way in which the Vietnam War was "run out of the White House" under the leadership of McNamara. It was an example of " isolating the elite" from reality.

3. The third reason for failure in implementing strategic decisions is obsession with speed. Supported by developments in the field of technology, people in current leadership positions feel that others need to respond to their sense of timing and have questioned, the validity of using western discernment or eastern wisdom, when looking at problems in cybertime. The answer to their questioning came in the late fall of 2000 when the dot.com bubble burst. In the dot com field, there had not been the 5-7 year phase for developing the business and all the other essentials which are present when discernment is part of the thinking and planning. Technology leaders thought those essentials were only applicable in a former century.

Overlay of a wisdom and discernment tradition model onto strategic decision-making ...what would it look like ?

Step One .........Begins with a reflective inner disposition, as a pre-condition for entering into the act of decision-making. One path to achieving a reflective inner disposition is through meditation. All traditions emphasize the need for practicing meditation which allows you to have inner peace, and hence be a person of peace. You pray for wisdom and wisdom is a gift.

One does not look for or arrive at inner peace because tomorrow we need it to solve a problem. Instead, we develop inner peace so that when it is needed, you are prepared and can use that knowledge and approach in solving problems. The practice of meditation results in two fruits:
1. The First fruit is realizing the sense of your life as a compassionate calling. You are not there for the grandeur of the position, for greed, or for political opportunity. You are there as a servant leader.
A good example of a servant leader would be Dag Hammarskjold when he was elected to the position of Secretary General of the United Nations. He was not there for greed or self-aggrandizement. As he said in his book, "Etchings", "May I assume that post with all the dignity and full gravitas required of the post, in full humility to serve." He felt like he was there for a noble purpose.

Spiritual transformation means you can accept criticism and setbacks. Humility in most traditions is expressed in terms of detachment or indifference. In detachment a person's ego will not enter into the process. In indifference, a person can accept failure, setbacks and negative messages because as servant leader " I have to live in the total reality of the situation.

Gandhi was an example of spiritual transformation leadership . When he returned to India after two years in Africa, he was asked to consider a position in politics. He declined saying, "I have no idea what needs to be done. I need to be with the people to find the answers." Living among the people was his focus for the next two years and he later became a servant leader of the people.

Eisenhower was another example of transformational leadership. Prior to his selection as a leader of wartime operations he had spent many years in the peacetime forces "becoming a leader." Leadership is not about the power you receive because of an appointment to a position, but about the process of developing qualities prior to the appointment. Eisenhower was impeccably about the process and not the power.
Contemporary decision-making theory generally ignores and disregards those facts and focuses on the instrumental. It is only recognized in Transformational Leadership Theory born out in the difference between the politician versus the Statesman

2. The second fruit gained from meditation is the need for patience in discovering the underlying problem or nature of the issue. Patience is a continuation of the first discipline. It helps us discern what is true compared with what we prefer. In the Christian tradition this is called, "Watchful Waiting". The Buddhist would call this. "entering with a beginners mind." We need to pay attention to subtle and deep persistent clues without screening out messages.

In contemporary decision-making literature those ideas are noted, but they don't have the same resonance. We talk about listening to multiple stakeholders; scouting external from your own organization in order to engage in new discoveries; arranging retreats for staff so they can meet in locations that are safe and conducive to discussing problems; and avoiding attention to vested interests.

In both the discernment and wisdom traditions they hope to provide a way to make a connection to a level of reality that couldn't be possessed by forcing an early overlay of an analog on the situation.

Entrepreneurs provide an example of people who often think about and talk about their ideas for a one or two-year period before you see a business plan. Their breakthrough comes from that deep tacit understanding of reality. Michael Goldback points out that the entrepreneur discovers a new reality that others are less sensitive to.

The Intel Story There were three people at the management level of Intel helping to produce memory devices when the company received a contract to manufacture a calculator from Japan. Two of the management team said that was not what they were in business for, but the third person, Robert Noyce, supported and promoted exploration toward the development of a calculator and said, "You should never take the dream away from a physicist." Of course this changed the future of Intel.

Steps to the Discernment Decision-making Process:
1. Prepare oneself through understanding the disciplines.
2. Practice patience in discovering the issue, observing emotional, intellectual, and prudent non-action.
3.Undertake the hard, time-consuming work of gathering information. This is an admonishment in the spiritual model. There is a need to do such things as benchmark with other organizations, have multiple proposals, allow parallel processing, arrange a network from multiple sources of user input. There are contemporary research behaviour tools, but these are dramatically underutilized.
4. Take the information back to silence, prayer, and reflection. ( we don't hear that a lot in the management literature), yet it is the essence in the wisdom traditions and discernment literature. Paying attention to the deep self is possible only if you quiet the mind. Leaders from the East are better than the West at "prudent non-action". Non-action is not a favorite of the West where "pushing for results" is seen as desirable.

Experiment with trying an "overlay" of the decision-making process

Sometime when you are involved with a group that is trying to reach a decision, ask them to bring a quote from the wisdom literature which might be helpful, then protect a period of silence. Next, ask them to bring a quote from the discernment literature. This experiment should allow the group to see things in the decision process which were otherwise missed. The next step is to take a decision tentatively.

The wisdom literature encourages the leader to remain open, to stay in the beginners mind, and pay attention to holistic cues about the question compared to the technical approach. In the technical approach we pay attention to the moment, manipulate the truth and experience the dark side. We're not trained in the holistic approach.

Evaluating the results

When members of a group or organization have tried to apply ideas from the discernment and wisdom traditions, direct your attention to the spirit of the organization after that action has been taken.

Is everyone more at peace ?Is there more light and a better sense of play ? Is there more self-sacrificing or is there more manipulation to the darkness side and a losing of spirit ?

Both traditions emphasize constant re-evaluation and openness to continuous change. Change is often seen as a painful process which creates anxiety, instead of being a natural development to be embraced.
Summary of both traditions (western discernment and eastern wisdom)

1. They emphasize a culture of engagement, of deep listening and mutual adjustment. The West is affected by technical aspirations instead of the holistic approach.
2. They emphasize a need for space in time just to be in the nexus of a problem. The technical West often thinks that opposed to remaining in the nexus of a problem, hyperactivity is where you find the solution.
3. They emphasize the need for reflective moments of re-examination, but in the decision science literature the main focus is on the statistical feedback on the instrumental, not holistic facts.
4.The wisdom literature urges us to see the holistic picture without listening to the emotional. With deep listening you find liberty and reach for a more courageous outcome.

Insights from this study.
1. The deep nature, the spirit, does penetrate everything, but unless you participate in the inner search, you will not hear the deep spirit..
2. Those who incorporate the capacity for deep listening find new liberty and find freedom from the need to over control and other negative administrative practices. These people find new energy, new inner resources, and reach more courageous outcomes which insures hope that sustains courage in the face of many obstacles.
3. We are finding in the structure of knowledge studies, the overlay of these wisdom traditions onto strategic decision-making creates a powerful amplification of an important aspect of a leader's life.