Wisdom in Business, by Professor Robert Chia

Robert Chia
Robert Chia

The Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility is looking forward to the visit of Prof Robert Chia on Thursday 21st April for the last in the CGLGR Guest Lecture Series for the 2015/16 academic year.

Refreshments will be served from 5.30pm with the lecture commencing at 6.00pm and finishing at 7.00pm. The event is free, but please register your interest here.

Robert is an expert in critical management, which I take to mean the field of asking awkward questions about leadership and management. This is a massively important part of business studies partly because business schools are in the habit of precisely avoiding awkward questions. ‘Come to us and we will provide you with all you need to know about business – success will follow’ is the libretto to an aria which all too easily fails to ask what knowledge, practice, or related skills are, or even what the parameters of success might be.

Chia argues that leadership and management in practice need to cultivate the awkward questions, and it is startling how often we do not. Take for instance the Arthur Andersen email that went around their offices sometime before their downfall, asking members of the firm to check their emails to see if there was a ‘smoking gun’ therein.  No awkward questions followed. A follow up email clarified what was meant by ‘smoking gun’, and one might think of several awkward questions that this might prompt. None came back.

Chia suggests that we should be looking to develop the kind of virtues that enable questions to be articulated. At the heart of this is something about phronesis or practical wisdom- the capacity to reflect on the good and consider how we embody it in our practices. Once you do that then you are looking beyond narrow targets and simple strategies and into questions about the significance of what you are doing and what everybody else is doing. And all it needs is a simple question to get that going. So why is it so hard to ask questions in the workaday work place?

Why in the ordinary workplace do we need to be courageous to ask a question? Steven Caton explores this well (2010), in relation to the extraordinary workplace of Abu Ghraib.

Two things come to mind. First, to ask a question you need to be conscious of dissonance or some uncertainty. This means that you have to be conscious of what you are up to and the social environment in which you operate. This is why my four year old grandson is so good at asking questions; he is always on the look-out. Here, searching for answers trumps the dead hand of power, which tells you what you should be looking for. Second, it is precisely the dead hand of power which doesn’t want questions, and even characterises questions as ‘eccentric’. Hence, to speak questions to power needs courage.

Aristotle and Aquinas both saw consciousness and courage as central to the exercise of the virtues with wisdom at the centre. This is where Robert comes in on April 21st. Please do register and join us for an interesting presentation followed by stimulating Q&A – register here !

Simon Robinson

Director of the Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility

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