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Knowledge vs. Wisdom


To run a healthy organization, a leader must understand the difference between knowledge and wisdom, and place a much higher premium on wisdom. This is not easy because much of the world today seems to idolize knowledge. This leaves companies—not to mention families and societies—in big trouble as they spend too much time acquiring information and not enough time thinking about what to do with it.

The purpose of this short essay is to explain the difference between knowledge and wisdom and to give leaders permission to relax in their relentless pursuit of reading and understanding every last trend and supposed breakthrough.

Here’s a saying I like: “Knowledge is understanding that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” In my work with organizations, I’ve met plenty of supposedly brilliant leaders who put tomatoes in their fruit salad, leaving employees to shake their heads and say “how could he have been so stupid?” What they should be saying is “how could he be so unwise?”

How do leaders go about getting wiser? One of the first things they have to do is stop spending so much time acquiring knowledge. Leaders who are constantly consuming industry information and voraciously reading books about the latest trends can’t help but become enamored with and distracted by, what is new and exciting. Instead, they should do what the best leaders of the best companies do: spend more time discerning with their leadership team members what the company stands for, discuss with them how best to lead in the context of that, and remind people constantly what that means.

That’s not an argument for being ignorant about what is happening in their industry and the world. That would be ridiculous. But leaders know that at the end of the day, leadership is not about being the smartest person in the room, or for that matter, the smartest person in the company. It is about knowing how to take the collective knowledge of the organization, apply the right amount of wisdom to put it to good use.