It is often said, by both supporters and detractors, that President Barack Obama is intelligent, smart, well-educated, and even cerebral. However, President Obama is never described as wise. Wisdom is a special quality reserved for a few rare individuals. And wisdom is the most important characteristic which distinguishes ordinary leaders from extraordinary leaders.
Obama's wisdom deficit is not necessarily a flaw or defect in his character. It is simply a quality that does not yet exist within the man. The old adage "with age comes wisdom" hints that wisdom takes time to acquire, but not all people become wise.
So is there a formula for achieving wisdom?
Confucius said, "By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest."
But Confucius fails to address the foundation necessary to gain wisdom. Expressed in a formula, wisdom might be calculated as:
Intelligence + Knowledge + Practical Application = Wisdom
Intelligence in this formula is the capacity to learn. In computer terms, this would be called storage capacity. Knowledge is the accumulation of data from many sources. These would include formal education as well as books, magazines, conversations, and even television -- the combined accumulation of data we feed our brains on a daily basis. The final ingredient, Practical Application, is the aspect addressed by Confucius.
Wisdom may be acquired by any or all of the methods Confucius noted, provided the foundation is in place. And the degree of wisdom will be directly proportional to Intelligence and Knowledge and how the human brain is able to bring these elements together.
As an example, consider a child being told that a stove is hot. Assuming that the child has the capacity to process the information (intelligence), he now has the knowledge needed to avoid a dangerous situation. But without touching the stove, he lacks the practical experience to know the meaning of "hot" and the point of reference to understand the danger. But as soon as he touches a hot stove, intentionally or accidentally, he now has completed the formula and knows that the stove is hot, exactly what "hot" means, and the danger involved. But this has not yet transformed into true wisdom.
When the child is later told not to touch an outdoor grill because it is hot, the wisdom kicks in, and he knows the danger without experiencing the burn. This is the basic level of wisdom. And this type of critical thinking eventually moves to the point where the child knows that fire is hot without touching it or being told that it is hot.
When this simple scenario is repeated in other situations thousands of times over a period of years, one is able to extrapolate most any situation, predicting the outcome based on the accumulated experiences.
It is important to note the order of Confucius' methods of attaining wisdom. He stated these methods in reverse chronological of occurrence.
The third method according to Confucius is experience. In the example of the child, the experience of being burned by a hot stove began the process of wisdom, but it was certainly bitter for the child.
Confucius' second method, imitation, is the next stage. As a child might observe an adult carefully tending a fire, the child might imitate the same caution, trusting the wisdom of the elder.
The first method, reflection, is the highest plateau of wisdom. When attained, one no longer requires external elements to make wise decisions.
President Obama is stuck at Confucius' third level, experience. Convinced that his intelligence and education (knowledge) have provided him with a shortcut to wisdom, he has made poor decisions at just about every turn. And while his on-the-job experience could someday lead to wisdom, America is suffering as her president learns.
Obama surrounds himself with advisors, but most of these also lack experience. And this president holds his knowledge and intelligence in such high regard that he is unable to trust the advice of others above his own academic experience. And for this reason, imitation is not in his DNA, no matter how tried and true the solutions may be.
By contrast, the previous president, George W. Bush, gained a modest amount of wisdom as governor of Texas. While Texas is a large state, in the scale of things, compared to the United States, Texas is still quite small. But Bush had the experience as governor on which to reflect, something Obama lacks. Dealing with budgets, partisanship, and disasters, regardless of scale, still gave Bush a point of reference and experience.
In addition, Bush was not so impressed with his own knowledge and intelligence that he was unable to seek wisdom from others, including his father, George H.W. Bush, and his vice president, Dick Cheney.
Often, the ability to recognize and seek wisdom from others is, in itself, wisdom. While the younger President Bush made his share of mistakes, as all men will, he had a deeper understanding of what he did and did not know than does President Obama.
English philosopher Francis Bacon said that "[t]here is no concurrence between learning and wisdom," and Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz opined that "[i]t should be noted that the seeds of wisdom that are to bear fruit in the intellect are sown less by critical studies and learned monographs than by insights, broad impressions, and flashes of intuition."
President Obama would do well to learn that he does not know what he thinks he knows. Much of the criticism hurled at him from all corners of the earth is not intended to harm his presidency, but rather to convince him that he need not reinvent the wheel to lead the country.
The sooner President Obama attains enough wisdom to understand that he has a wisdom deficit, the better off America and the world will be.