Timeless Wisdom: Proverbs for Leaders (Part One)

Over the years in my coaching practice, I have quoted “words of wisdom” that I’ve picked up along the way. Often, when I do so, I cite the source as “A Jewish Proverb”. Truth be told, most of these quotes should be attributed to King Solomon.

Smartest guy in the room. Any room.

According to a variety of sources, Solomon was the third ruler of Israel. Son of King David. Famous for his extraordinary brainpower. And he was the most influential leader of his day.

King Solomon lived 3,000 years ago, and is known as the “wisest man in history.” Consider this: He ruled a nation. He wrote three books of the Jewish Scriptures. He pioneered zoology and botany. He amassed enormous wealth. If that weren’t enough, he composed 1,005 songs and over 3,000 proverbs.

His wisdom is as relevant for today’s business culture as it was back in his day. Perhaps that’s why I quote him so much. We can still benefit from Solomon’s insights. Human nature hasn’t changed, and as he once said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

Leadership and Self-Control

Peruse Twitter for 10 minutes or less and you’ll inevitably find a tweet about someone, somewhere going off half-cocked. Whether it’s a verbal tirade, or even worse, some physical altercation, our world is filled with such stories of lack of self-control. So much so, many accept these incidents as “just the way it is”.

Solomon, however, understood the need for self-control: “Fools have short fuses and explode all too quickly; the prudent quietly shrug off insults.”

Another proverb seems says, “Hot-tempers start fights; a calm, cool spirit keeps the peace.”

I’m sure you agree with these cautions. Hopefully, as a leader, we would never lay a hand on an employee or peer. But how about a verbal slap? In the stress of running a business, tempers can flare and harsh words can fly back and forth, even between friends.

As leaders, our role is to promote peace, teamwork and emotional health among our followers. Solomon’s advice can help us: “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Here are some more thoughts for leader, appropriately attributed to Solomon…   

Watch your tongue….

Words are powerful. Even with good intentions, leaders can inadvertently wound an employee (or teammate or volunteer) with a casual remark or off-the-cuff criticism. Solomon spells out the consequences: “The tongue has the power of life and death.”

Not physical death, of course. But perhaps the death of a relationship or the death of a dream. Wrong words at the wrong time can destroy trust and comradery. The words a leader chooses have the ability to encourage a person and improve a situation. On the flipside, they can discourage that same person and exacerbate a problem. Words are the “proverbial” (sorry) double-edged sword. With them, we have the ability to build up or tear down. Motivate or discourage.

Our words (and our tone of voice and body language) can inspire someone to achieve greatness or set them up for failure and mediocrity.

Research shows the average person speaks about 7,000 words a day, with many of us far exceeding that. It’s hard to keep track of all that verbiage, but words — knowingly or unknowingly — can transform lives. Solomon reminds us that, “Kind words help and heal; cutting words wound and maim.”

Sometimes as leaders, we’re on the receiving end of unkind, hurtful words. We’ve all had someone judge us unfairly; it’s especially prevalent on social media. How should we respond? Our natural inclination might be to retaliate or even escalate the war of words. But the wise king advises us to do the opposite: “A gentle answers turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”  Another version reminds potential hotheads that “a gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles the temper fire.”

Even when others are angry or being unreasonable, wise leaders can still use well-chosen words to shift the mood: “Gentle, soothing words bring life and healing.”

Zip your lips…

Have you ever been stuck in a meeting with a chatterbox? A person who never lets the rest of the team get a word in? Or how about the person born without a filter? These windbags just blurt out whatever crosses their mind.

According to Solomon, it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of controlling the tongue. In a business, nonprofit, or family environment, that’s priceless advice.

He declares: “Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin.”  Another translation warns, “opening your mouth can ruin everything.”  That reminds me of what Mark Twain said, “It’s better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

Ouch. That’s brilliant. But Solomon beat Twain to the punch. He wrote, “Prudent people don’t flaunt their knowledge; talkative fools broadcast their silliness.”  Another take on the Hebrew text renders it, “Fools blurt out folly, but a wise person is reluctant to display his knowledge until the proper time.”

The leaders I work with are often bright, highly educated people. But they don’t flaunt it. Somebody said, “Knowledge is like underwear — it’s useful to have, but not necessary to show it off!” Suppose you’re a leader in a meeting. When a question comes up, do you immediately jump in? Or do you let others speak first? According to Solomon, the mere fact that you know the answer doesn’t mean you should give it.

Proverbs instructs us to refrain from harsh words and to avoid just firing off our opinions. Instead, we’re to speak calmly, have cool tempers, and choose our words wisely. It’s okay to respond (even to verbal attacks) — but do it thoughtfully.

In light of Solomon’s wisdom, I encourage all leaders to, in particular, analyze their social media lifestyle. When we comment on hot button issues, news articles, or political posts, are we doing it in a way that’s humble and full of grace? Or are we just blowing off steam and using a negative or condescending tone that doesn’t convey respect?

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok — every online format is overflowing with reactions and replies, many of which are apparently posted without much forethought. As leaders, let’s resolve to apply Solomon’s wisdom… before we hit send.

Work hard (and smart)…

One of my favorite leaders, Winston Churchill, said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

As a coach, I agree. After working with scores of successful people, I can tell you that being on top is not as easy as it may look. It almost always requires years of diligence, perseverance, and sacrifice.

Today, we live in a culture bent on ease and convenience. Shopping is a click away. Meals are delivered to our door. Movies stream into our homes. Roomba vacuums our floors. Soon, computers will drive our cars.

This desire for “effortless results” and “instant everything” can affect our leadership. We may be tempted to skip a few steps or cut some corners. Solomon cautions: “Good planning and hard work lead to prosperity, but hasty shortcuts lead to poverty.”

Intellectually, we know that money doesn’t rain down from the sky. But we still fantasize about it, right? People have always looked for insider deals and get-rich-quick schemes. But in reality, things that seem too-good-to-be-true seldom pay off. Proverbs warns us: “Hard work brings prosperity, but a person who chases fantasies has no sense.”

To the casual observer, it may appear that our favorite stars (sports, business, investing, entertainment, etc.) seem to be “overnight successes.” In reality, there’s inevitably a backstory of hard work and discipline that isn’t shown.

With painful honesty, Solomon reveals the key to abundance has always been hard work: “Lazy people want much but get little; but those who work hard will prosper.”

These proverbs are actually about working hard and being content. We can sit around complaining and comparing our situation to people or companies who’ve achieved more than us. We can focus on the things we don’t have, or we can get busy and be grateful for the opportunities we do have to cultivate and grow our business.  To my ears, this bit of ancient advice sounds like it was written yesterday: “Work hard and become a leader; be lazy and never succeed.”

Practice integrity…

Are you a high-integrity leader?

To help you answer that, let me ask a question: What would you do if you knew nobody would ever find out? If you knew you’d never be caught, would you act differently?

Most of us are trying our best to be honest and trustworthy. I get that. But would we embezzle or embellish “just a little” if we knew no one would ever find out?

Hardcore integrity says, “I won’t do this — not because I’m scared of getting caught, but because I can’t live with myself if I do.” That’s not always easy. Leading with integrity in a world where people wink at small doses of corruption or malfeasance is challenging. Especially when cheaters often do seem to prosper.

Things can get murky out there, but if you have integrity, it will serve as a guide, directing you in the next right step — the way you ought to be going.

The writer of Proverbs says, “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.”  There are lots of alluring voices, lots of compelling pressures urging you to stray. Fortunately, Solomon gives us a roadmap, “The integrity of the honest keeps them on track.” He also paints the demise of those who make bad choices, “The deviousness of crooks brings them to ruin.”

Solomon led millions of people. He knew integrity was the guard of his reputation and a necessity for lasting success in any sphere. Without it, businesses, institutions, nations, and families crumble and eventually fall into moral disarray. Proverbs contrasts those who choose integrity with those who don’t: People with integrity walk safely, but those who follow crooked paths will be exposed.

I chuckled at this modern paraphrase of that passage: Honesty lives confident and carefree, but Shifty is sure to be exposed.

Nobody is perfect; that’s not my point. I’m talking about basic integrity — the resolve to reject hypocrisy and embrace authenticity. Integrity is the unwavering determination in your gut to do right, no matter what. Even when it’s not the easiest or most profitable path at the moment: “Better to be poor and honest than to be dishonest and rich.

In his book, Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality, psychologist Dr. Henry Cloud agrees with Solomon: “Integrity is the key to success. A person with integrity has the rare ability to pull everything together, to make it all happen no matter how challenging the circumstances.”

Isn’t that what every good leader wants?

More to come…

Regardless of your religious persuasion, Solomon’s Proverbs help us live and lead successfully. These wise, short sayings can express deep truths in bite-size chunks.

And if applied, they can have a transformative effect on your leadership.

Next month, I’ll continue on this theme with “Timeless Wisdom: Part Two.” Meanwhile, if you’d like to discuss your own leadership role or management challenges you’re facing, let’s have a relaxed, informal chat. Please feel free to contact me.