Resisting Rules & Struggling to be Wise, Leadership Insights from ‘Practical Wisdom’

Peter B Godfrey
5 min readNov 17, 2020


Photo by Joao Tzanno on Unsplash

Writer’s Note: This piece is an expanded version of an earlier Muse produced for Juno Institute’s Monthly Journal. If you are interested in subscribing to the Journal here’s a link. There’s always interesting leadership content in it.

If you don’t already know, I am a Melburnian. If you are from another galaxy, you are forgiven for not knowing the world has confronted Covid-19 for most of 2020, with more to come. So, in light of Covid-19 and in light of living in Melbourne I, along with everyone else living in Melbourne, (and to a slightly lesser extent regional Victoria), have been served a very big helping of RULES from the Victorian State Premier since March.

Now, this muse is thoroughly apolitical. It definitely isn’t about your preferred social media hashtag, i.e. #IstandwithDan or #IcantstandDan. For my musing purposes it matters little where you sit politically, ideologically or practically on anything or everything.

A brief personal declaration. The longer Covid-19 has gone on the more daily press conferences I have watched, and I found myself increasingly having a visceral reaction to the word RULES. RULES, the term, not so much the intent, was grinding my gears, getting under my skin. And to help cope I tuned out of the daily presser.

My default pathway is to try and get from the visceral to the intellectual to help me to understand, to reconcile, and to make progress. Why oh why is RULES grating on me?

Enter Aristotle, Barry Schwartz, and Practical Wisdom. I have mused previously about wisdom and practical wisdom. In that muse I declared that I was working through ‘Schwartz and Sharpe’ Practical Wisdom — The Right Way to do the Right Thing’. A couple of nuggets from Schwartz and Sharpe helped me move from visceral to intellectual on RULES. I share them here just in case they help you too in some small way.

The authors offer that ‘the world we face is too complex and varied to be handled by RULES’. RULES are never enough. RULES by themselves can’t do the job. RULES keep us from understanding what we are really doing. “The silence about practical wisdom (vs RULES) is diverting and disempowering’.

Schwartz and Sharpe describe Rules Talk and Wisdom Talk and posit that Rules Talk dominates Wisdom Talk, and, that we humans ‘blind ourselves by locking our public conversations into Rules Talk.’ Rules Talk they suggest ‘seems like an insurance policy against disaster.’

Rules Talk is about absolutes. Wisdom Talk is about context and nuance. Rules Talk marginalises the importance of character traits like courage, patience, determination, self-control, and kindness. Wisdom Talk puts them at the centre.

A point from the authors that really landed for me is this:

“If we rely on rules to tell us what to do, then we shut ourselves off from information and understanding we may have that cannot be put into words. And doing that may deprive us of the opportunity to make far more nuanced judgements than any rules would allow.”

And this gem:

“Rules are set up to establish and maintain high standards of performance, and to allow the lessons learned by some to be shared by all. But if they are too strict or too detailed or too numerous they can be immobilising, counterproductive, and even destructive.”

And this:

“Principles are often in conflict with one another and need to be balanced. If rigid rules and dogmatic principles marginalise the practical wisdom we need to interpret and balance, we are prevented from choosing well”.

As a leader, right now, are you seeing before your very eyes your organisation’s Policy Manual with all those RULES? Too detailed? Too strict? Too numerous? What’s the impact of those Rules on the day to day life of your organisation? Principles compromising good and right choices? Squeezing wisdom out? Suppressing the wise?

As a leader in large corporate organisations I was occasionally heard to say that I’d like to replace the entire Policy Manual with just one Policy — ‘Thou shalt nurture and use commonsense at work’. Having now read Practical Wisdom I perhaps should have listened to myself a little more and done it!

If you opt to dive into Schwartz and Sharpe pp 44 and 45 will help you grasp their central theme differentiating Rules Talk from Wisdom Talk, e.g.

“Rules Talk tends to be about absolutes. Wisdom Talk is context talk, talk about nuance”.

“Rules Talk urges us to consult a text or a code. Wisdom Talk urges us to learn from others who are practically wise”.

The authors concede that Practical Wisdom is a slippery thing. It lives in the grey, is context dependent, and must be nurtured by experience.

Before I close, something else from Schwartz and Sharpe, page 287 to be exact, the second to last paragraph of their important work…

“Being a good friend, a good parent, a good colleague, or a good community member; being a good teacher, a good doctor, or a good lawyer — these are the things we do both for the sake of others and for the sake of ourselves. We can’t do any of these things well without practical wisdom. That’s why it’s worth struggling to be wise. That’s why it’s important to resist those rules and incentives that eviscerate discretion and threaten wisdom. That’s why we need to reform those institutions that are driving wisdom out.”

For me, consistent with Juno Institute’s noble work I am turning my mind to leadership development and practical wisdom, and how we might help organisations cultivate practical wisdom in and for their leaders at all levels. Definitely ‘worth the struggle’ we think. More to come on that…

Thanks to Aristotle, Schwartz and Sharpe I got myself a little more settled, though feeling no more empowered I might add in the current Covid-19 situation. My visceral reaction to a RULES diet, I have learned, is perhaps attributable to my appreciation of complexity, context and nuance and my preference for the centrality of character traits in decision making, taking action, and leading. It’s about the struggle to be wise. I am certain that I am not alone here. How well does a RULES based approach work for you as a Leader?




Peter B Godfrey

I have thoughts, I am a thinker. I write words, I am a writer.