Wisdom and courage, not technology, will point the way to a brighter future

I'm happy to be back breathing the hot and muggy though wonderfully sea-level air of New York, having just returned from the Aspen Ideas Festival. There were, as usual, many great speakers, but one of the speeches that became the talk of the festival was by Nancy Koehn, a professor at the Harvard Business School.

Though she teaches at the business school, Koehn is actually a historian, and the speech, entitled "Crisis Leadership: Lessons for Here and Now," was about lessons we can learn about leadership from the experiences of Abraham Lincoln and the explorer Ernest Shackleton. The speech was particularly poignant as the world is beginning to focus on Nelson Mandela's leadership, with regular updates on his health as he lies in critical condition at a hospital in South Africa.

The overall theme of Koehn's speech was that leaders can find their "stronger, better selves in the midst of great crisis." And the quest for effective leadership is particularly intense now that, as Koehn put it, "turbulence is the new normal."

In this era of Big Data triumphalism, we are slowly realizing that raw information doesn't solve many problems. What we need, said Koehn is wisdom, because "information ... does not equal knowledge, and knowledge does not equal understanding, and understanding does not equal wisdom."

So what were the lessons of Lincoln and Mandela, two giants at helping their respective nations overcome the limits of selfishness and weakness? One who ended a civil war and one who prevented one from breaking out. And both who, in the end, kept their divided nations together.

One of the most important aspects of Lincoln, said Koehn, was "how he used his own knowledge of himself to grow and lead and have impact." She tells the story of Lincoln, as a young lawyer, learning how to become a good speaker. After opening up his law practice, he assumed he'd just be able to convince a jury relying on his speaking ability alone. But he soon realized that wasn't enough -- it would take more rigor and focus and prioritizing than that. So, as he told his law students, he'd focus his argument down to the two or three points most important to his case and zero in on those. This capacity to see his strengths and weaknesses from the outside and make adjustments was invaluable. "He had the ability to walk all around himself and his place," said Koehn.

And that ability -- to step outside of ourselves and the minute-to-minute turbulence of the moment -- is becoming harder not just for our leaders but for all of us. Too often, Koehn said, we want to find salvation in external tools, in the belief that we can outsource our responsibility and wisdom to technology. "We think often that the solution to what we need ... is about the aids we have," she said. "Often it's our smartphone."

But that's not the answer. It's not about technology, Koehn said, "it's about the core -- it's about the center of who you are physically and emotionally." And our country is "so hungry for people whose core is strong." Both Lincoln and Mandela are obvious examples of leaders whose moral cores were not only strong but became stronger as the turbulence around them intensified.

It's not as if they didn't have doubts and fears about the path they were embarking on and the consequences of their decisions.

Likewise, Mandela was not free from fear, either. Rick Stengel, now the managing editor of Time, collaborated with Mandela on his book "Long Walk to Freedom" in 1994. "Mandela was often afraid during his time underground, during the Rivonia trial that led to his imprisonment, during his time on Robben Island," wrote Stengel in 2008. "'Of course I was afraid!' (Mandela) would tell me later. It would have been irrational, he suggested, not to be. 'I can't pretend that I'm brave and that I can beat the whole world.' "

But they both managed to navigate what Koehn calls "the shaky floorboards of doubt" without falling through.

The U.S. is not facing such an obvious life or death moment as it was during the Civil War, or as South Africa was when it began dismantling apartheid in 1990 en route to its first elections four years later. But we're still in what Koehn calls a turbulent moment. We still have a disastrously high unemployment rate, and we're still facing up to a decade more of it before we hit something approaching full employment. And the jobs that are being created are too low-paying to support a family. The stakes of the current moment for the middle class and the continuation of the American Dream are huge -- but have the stakes been adequately framed?

The president was not able to personally meet with Mandela. But Mandela's leadership lessons will belong to the ages, just as Lincoln's leadership lessons do. Two very different men, they shared the same defining qualities that we need in the 21st century. As Koehn put in the conclusion of her speech:

"We need muscles of moral courage, we need to flex them, we need to find them, we need to help others recognize them and find them in themselves. Nothing more is needed and nothing less will do at this moment of great turbulence, great promise, great peril."

(Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is arianna@huffingtonpost.com.)

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