Prudence Alone Knows How to Lead

“It takes a wise man to recognize a wise man.”


IF WISDOM is the ability to think, say, and do the right thing in any given situation, the right thing being the ethical and practical means to achieving the good of all, the number of political and business leaders who exemplify that quality is vanishingly small. Moreover, Xenophanes’ dictum suggests that the paucity of wisdom in the electorate, and among those who recommend and expedite executive appointments, also cause for alarm. And if wisdom is the mark of great leadership, then greatness would seem to have passed us by.

The only English monarch to earn the title “Great’ was Alfred, the 9th century Saxon King of Wessex. When he was crowned, the Vikings were ravaging his realm, the economy was in tatters, literacy and learning were dying, and the morale of his people was shattered. Defeating the Danes was a long and bloody business, and when he finally triumphed, he chose to make peace, all the while working to forge greater unity among the Anglo-Saxons. Alfred rebooted economic life by constructing fortified towns in strategic places, built a strong navy, and revived religion and learning. He attracted leading scholars from abroad, initiating a cultural renaissance to which he further contributed with translations of classic texts. His reign was one long struggle and he must have wondered whether his heirs would preserve what had been achieved.

The crises Alfred had to contend with were not unlike the issues that plague us today. The difference came in Alfred’s resolve to make things better, and his ability to inspire a cynical populace to support his efforts. Today, there is little indication that political and business leaders understand what needs to be done or have the inclination to do anything other than entrench their own positions. They plainly lack the prudence of an Alfred the Great.

Prudence, the virtue from which all others grow, is the ability to make the right decisions, an ability that has to be perfected over time. It is the practical wisdom concerned with everyday realities and the ways and means of dealing with them.

Prudence is a word that is not used much nowadays; on the rare occasions when it is, the meaning is taken to be ‘caution’, even ‘timidity’, or a calculating, self-seeking, no-risk attitude. The meaning has been corrupted over time by careless usage, and society has lost appreciation of the most important of the cardinal virtues, those building blocks of sound character, the essential qualities of leadership. Prudence, the virtue from which all others grow, is the ability to make the right decisions, an ability that has to be perfected over time. It is the practical wisdom concerned with everyday realities and the ways and means of dealing with them. It grows with experience and an expanding knowledge of ourselves and of the world around us. Prudence is the power of reason slowly sharpened by the accurate apprehension of reality, that is, things as they are.

Ironically, most leaders today would agree that prudence is needed in dealing with the immigration imbroglio, the ISIS Crisis, the financial fracas, the Iranian time-bomb, and other unsettling slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But they would mean it in the utilitarian sense of taking the easy way out rather than doing what is good for all concerned, regardless of the cost. In business, managers routinely slash and burn in their quest for short-term gains, and of course, they claim to be doing the prudent thing.

Yet these are not prudent responses; they are foolish, the opposite of prudent, sweeping the dust under the carpet into an ever more menacing mountain. In politics and business, we now seem to see dishonesty, greed, and cowardice as prudent, and truthfulness, generosity, and courage as imprudent. No wonder our crises fester and frustrate.

It proceeds through grasping the realities of a situation, judging the relative merits of potential responses, making a firm decision, and then acting swiftly on it. Prudence is both rational and action-oriented because the right thing to do left undone is quite simply foolish and cowardly. The leader who hesitates after a sound judgment has been made is no leader at all.

Prudence requires being wholly open-minded in confronting reality because rational thought is impossible without truth, that is, knowledge of things as they are. You can’t fix a car unless you know the truth about its condition; a doctor can’t treat a patient unless he has a true medical record, and you can’t understand someone unless you know the truth about them.

Prudence therefore also depends on a well-developed memory. In The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman called the cultivation of memory “a discipline inaccuracy of mind,” and a “first step in intellectual training”. Memorization, the essential intellectual discipline, long-rejected by state schools in the West, is an exercise that builds the mind in the same way physical exercise strengthens the body.

A sound memory liberates a person by giving him or her a deep fund of knowledge and ideas from which to draw when thinking about anything, providing the intellectual arsenal to question authority intelligently. It also furnishes a richer vocabulary and a more cultivated grammar with which to articulate thoughts and emotions. And it provides the foundation for interpreting the experiences of life that are themselves essential to developing prudence.

As one grows in practical wisdom, one develops what the ancient world, more mindful of the need for fine distinctions, termed solertia, a clear-minded objectivity when confronted by the unexpected. A leader’s intuitive grasp of the issues when ambushed by a crisis inspires the confidence to act swiftly to resolve matters.

Knowing what prudence entails lets us identify the means for developing it. First, one must actively pursue new experiences. Climbing trees, flying kites, and selling lemonade help the young acquire the rudiments of prudence, just as participation in sports, raising funds for disaster relief, performing in a play, and helping repair a lawnmower will develop them further. In adulthood, gardening, golfing, and galleries, tramping, Taekwondo, and travel, and a glut of other experiences can all help nurture prudence.

But there is a condition – they must be pursued with virtue, that is, with purpose and perseverance, with courage and compassion, with respect and restraint. The enemies of prudence – thoughtlessness, laziness, negligence, irresponsibility, credulousness, and blindness to the truth about ourselves, other people, and the world – confirm this condition.

The second guideline is equally important and refers back to the importance of memory. Prudence grows with the reading of history and classic literature. Without the rich experiences and insights of the great minds of the past as an integral part of our intellectual capability, we are simply not equipped to make sense of the complexity of currents flowing through our world, and to formulate the right response. Interpretation of events cannot be done in a vacuum; insight is impossible in a void.

As Chesterton told us: “Thinking means connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected.” In the first instance, the more things one has in one’s memory, the more bountiful the connections one will be able to make. Few will take this piece of advice seriously, but try memorizing some lines from a great poet, like Shakespeare or Wordsworth or Eliot; you will be surprised how much good you will derive from the exercise.

Third, prudence requires engaging others in dialogue, eschewing all corruptions of the ideal – like egotism, fallacy, loss of temper, and mud-slinging – and seeking only to grow in truth and understanding. Socratic questioning remains the most fruitful method for cultivating minds through dialogue.

Prudence is knowledge transformed into wisdom. It encourages us to be unbiased in perception, accurate in memory, and open to the ideas of others. It instills vigilance, keeping us primed for the unexpected, providing not just finely honed intuitive and deliberative powers, but also the courage for decisive action. Prudence stands on principle, rising above the cold calculation of utilitarian expediency. It is, in short, the sine qua non of leadership.

The virtue of prudence is certainly not beyond our reach, though the will to retrieve it has weakened in the soft social tissue of consumerism and entitlement. Many years ago, at the beginning of the West’s deep disillusionment, T S Eliot saw the tragedy of a modern world seemingly incapable of the prudent heroics of an Alfred the Great.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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  1. Prudence, one of the virtues given us among 7 is a virtue not well understood these days, and so your article was welcomed. What makes prudence successful is thinking before speaking or acting, understanding its meaning and with knowledge works for the benefit of the soul.

  2. Wisdom, ability to govern the passions and to direct the action to the pursuit of a universal common good: it is the idea of prudence that the classics have transmitted to us and of which today we need more than ever.
    Today, the transgressive is preferred, the one who does not fear the risk; whereas in ancient times prudence was considered a symbol / expression of wisdom, of an optimal capacity to manage both oneself and others.
    The prudent man is not the undecided, the cautious, the hesitant, but on the contrary the one who knows how to make the right decision with healthy realism; that does not get carried away by easy enthusiasm, does not hesitate and can dare with the right care.