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Can We Learn To Be Wise?

We interview CEIBS professor Mike Thompson, a management theorist with a passion for helping people

This is a story by Kate Jillings, Co-founder of BusinessBecause
Professor Thompson will be speaking on the topic of "Being You and Being Wise" on 24 April at Google's London offices, aimed at young professionals who are interested in doing an MBA - click here to find out more about the event and register!
Half an hour on the phone with Professor Mike Thompson and my mind is racing with big ideas of the ‘self’, ‘spirituality’ and ‘stewardship’. 
A management theorist, Professor Thompson is currently the Director of the Centre for Leadership and Responsibility at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS).  This department falls under the umbrella of ‘Corporate Governance’, an area that has ballooned in the wake of the ‘Financial Crisis’ and the resulting concern about poor oversight at the helm of so many financial institutions.
Professor Thompson has multiple degrees as well as hands-on business experience of running a sustainable branding agency and a toy retailer, setting up the Hub (London’s first flexible office space) and advising a varied mix of entrepreneurs and corporate managers.  
But his passion for helping others, whether business students or business leaders, is what Professor Thompson says he enjoys the most. He likes to “help complex people and complex organisations understand more about wisdom”, also the theme of a book he’s just edited - “Wise Management in Organisational Complexity” - due to be published next month. 
Wisdom, Professor Thompson reminds us, is different to knowledge. Many knowledgeable people often make unwise choices – he cites Lance Armstrong’s web of doping deceit or Raj Rajaratnam’s securities fraud (the NYC hedge fund manager sentenced to 11 years imprisonment), as two examples of the vulnerabilities of the very smart.  
Professor Thompson’s more specific definition is that “wisdom is the practice of insight by an individual based on knowledge and perception which results in disinterested and just judgments that are respected by others”.
It is in this context – an insightful individual making judgments respected by the outside world - that Professor Thompson teaches his MBA students to become wiser leaders. Through pragmatic and real-life case studies (ranging from corporate finance fiascos to airline sex scandals) he encourages students to think of themselves as tomorrow’s ‘wise’ leaders and reflect on how they might react in situations of fraud, whistle-blowing and board politics.  
MBA students are self-selecting ambitious leaders of the future and Professor Thompson challenges them to consider “who are you becoming when you embark on a career that may lead to you becoming a CEO of a business?”
And whilst you’re embarking on that career, are you becoming someone that you’re not? The gap between who we really are and the suit we wear, “The Suited Monk” is a motif that Professor Thompson believes will be commonplace in Europe soon. Coined by one of his business partners, Raf Adams, the Suited Monk is now the topic of hundreds of self-discovery workshops across China. 
Underpinned by the simple idea that we have an ego of social identity (the ‘suit’) as well as a sense of whom we really are inside (the ‘monk’), Raf Adams warns of the stress caused when the suit and the monk diverge.  
It’s a theme rooted in ancient Greek philosophy as well as the modern psychology of Freud and Jung, not to mention numerous coffee-table flicks from ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’ to ‘The Alchemist’ – we all want to discover our inner self nowadays! 
Professor Thompson feels that it’s an essential part of the MBA curriculum and that learning to manage stress between our inner and outer selves is important in management.  He asserts that if you adopt the role of an observer in a crisis situation you can make better decisions. Here are some of his other practical tips:
  • Observe and accept negative emotions so that you can let them go
  • Try having ‘silent moments’ every couple of hours and become your own observer
  • Ask yourself some questions such as: “Have I only been fire-fighting or did I look at the bigger picture?” and “What could I do differently in order to observe more?”
  • Develop the capacity for detachment, by not responding to external events but simply observing them by pausing for 2-3 seconds. 
  • In which areas can you take a step back and give more ownership to others?
It is this power of observation that has arguably led Professor Thompson on his, somewhat unconventional, career journey. He believes his career has been “determined by my sense of finding out who I am as a person and watching the way that life and the universe presents opportunities”.
He admits to being a “maverick” and claims to have only ever applied for one job. He’s worked for a fun mixture of organisations ranging from the UK's biggest independent toy retailer “The Entertainer” to the European Spirituality in Economic Society (SPES) forum. 
At SPES, Professor Thompson was involved in research looking at the spiritual identity of the individual within the complex economic environment we live in. His work at SPES focused on trying to counter-balance our economic sense of wellbeing versus our inner sense of spirituality. Moving to CEIBS, his most recent academic posting, Professor Thompson has shifted his research area to a wider exploration of ‘wisdom’ and what it really means to the individual and to managers. 
Perhaps those most in need of wise thinking are aspiring entrepreneurs, the fastest growing segment of CEIBS students – as many as 1/3 of Professor Thompson’s class would like to set up their own companies after their MBA. China poses an attractive backdrop, with plenty of opportunities to raise capital and innovative in a growing market. 
Professor Thompson feels that entrepreneurs have the freedom to make a personal difference in the world, something that’s not easy in a big company. He believes people find it hard to ‘self-actualise’ (hence the propensity for Suited Monks) in corporate life.
But not everyone can be an entrepreneur, says Professor Thompson, who would not describe himself as one. Having worked closely with risk takers – Raf Adams (who built an entire company around a book) or Dean Sanders (the founder of GoodBrand) to name a couple – he believes that entrepreneurs possess a “really unique DNA dynamic, the instinct to take an opportunity and invest when other people haven’t seen an opportunity – or other people are full of too many ‘rational’ reasons not to do something…”
However, Professor Thompson thinks entrepreneurs do need the right people around them to be successful and he’s observed how they tend to have a trusted group who walk with them: “wise and respected stewards who call the entrepreneur to account”.  
This ‘maverick’ management professor enjoys being a steward to several entrepreneurs,  whilst dividing his time between China and the UK and between corporate life and academia. We wonder where Mike Thompson’s path of self-discovery will take him next! 
Professor Thompson will be speaking on the topic of "Being You and Being Wise" on 24 April at Google's London offices, aimed at young professionals who are interested in doing an MBA - click here to find out more about the event and register!


Friday 8th March 2013, 10.53 (UTC)

Tony Simms

An interesting, but frustrating article. The title asks the question "Can we learn to be wise" but rather than concentrate on that element the interviewer (rather like a guest at a well stocked buffet table) fills her plate with a lot of tantalising tasters.

I found the various aspects of Professor Thompson's life and experience interesting, but would really have like to have go a fuller answer to the question.

I have always considered wisdom to be something that is acquired over time, or fundamentally innate, rather than a skill that can be learnt. I would have liked to heard more on the topic.

To my way of thinking the idea of cases studies almost mitigates against wisdom, as it tends to lead to a more formulaic or proscribed approach. A 'this is how we handle this situation' rather than applying wisdom to each new challenge.

So interesting article, but please don't tease us with tasters, bring out the main course.

Monday 11th March 2013, 03.43 (UTC)

Roy Chason

Hi Tony thanks for the comment, there is no wrong or right answer to these very complex topics. Would be great if you can join the event at Google on April 24th to ask and raise your opinion directly with Prof. Thompson.

Monday 11th March 2013, 15.58 (UTC)

Kate Jillings

Hi Tony,

You are right, the article headline is perhaps misleading. This is really an interview with Mike Thompson covering various aspects of his academic and business career, of which 'wise leadership' is a big component.

There are resources online if you care to read in to more depth - e.g. http://www.ceibs.edu/ecclar/images/20110516/32142.pdf

Or, as Roy Chason suggests, join us for Prof Thompson's talk on 24 April - where he'll hopefully shed more light on 'learning to be wise' - although I have my doubts on whether this is really possible!

Tuesday 12th March 2013, 20.28 (UTC)

Mike Thompson

Hi Tony! Short answer based on my own research and experience in coaching is: "Yes we can all learn to be wise". How? By practice. This means a discipline of self reflection and, at times, self detachment. One common practice for this currently in vogue is "mindfulness" which is a kind of mind-stilling time in which one simply observes and senses one's environment. You take time out (10 mins?), and "park" your mind and its rational processes. You simply feel and sense - a "non-mind" experience. Thanks for opening the debate with the question. The question is a life journey and life-long one!

Tuesday 12th March 2013, 20.28 (UTC)

Mike Thompson

Part 2: Wisdom can emerge for one's life, maybe a little blurred at first. In time, inner sensing becomes as normal as external rational argumentation. Executive respondents to my wisdom research study spoke about intuition or "gut instinct" which provides insight beyond the normal rational mental processes. Aristotle spoke about habituating the virtues of which wisdom is one, ie making wise thinking a choice which means learning from experience and trusting one's inner perceptions., what my friend Raf Adams calls our "inner monk".

Wednesday 13th March 2013, 10.50 (UTC)

Sian Morley-smith

Event registrations now open for Wise Young Things where Prof Thompson will be speaking at Google's London offices! http://www.businessbecause.com/because-event/wise-young-things

Tuesday 19th March 2013, 18.37 (UTC)

Tony Simms

Hi Guys, Many thanks for the invite to the conference. I would love to come along, but note that you prioritise MBA students and those who want to work at Google, so I might be down the list. I really hope you get enough bright young things to pack the place as the programme looks very interesting.

I will register and hope.

Meanwhile Kate, thanks for the link to the book preface. I(t certainly looks like it will be a must read book when it comes out.

Given the amazing times we live in, the spiral of business going down in one area whilst elsewhere we see phenomenal growth, wisdom is something young leaders need to get in abundance and if Prof Thompson can teach what is needed to acquire it, and give practical advice on habits that help us develop it, then it should prove to be a very interesting even and book!

Tuesday 19th March 2013, 04.01 (UTC)

Mike Thompson

I think wisdom is a human faculty and, like a muscle, can be exercised or not. So we can learn to be wise through practicing the wisdom "muscle". This involves self observation, learning andbalancing intution with rational capability. In my own research this exercise was most often described as experience. Although this implies you have to be older to learn to be wise, good wisdom practice can be maintained and nurtured from a young age. There is an intuitive dimension to wisdom. The inner voice can often be suppressed by our heightened mental activity and the rational conservatism which tells our "inner voice" not to be stupid or to take risks.

Sunday 7th April 2013, 14.22 (UTC)

Mike Thompson

Maybe this summary of my research in Forbes India may help elucidate:


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