When is advice good advice?

‘I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.’ The words of Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright.

Probably Wilde’s quip resonates with many of us because, while there’s no shortage of advice-givers, the advice offered often lacks wisdom or relevance.

I was frequently told ‘You must read this book. You’ll never regret it.’ They were so wrong. I almost always regretted it.

For example, Jack told me about a book that would change my understanding about demon possession. Now, demon possession was never remotely close to the forefront of my thinking, and I couldn’t imagine any book would improve its position. But Jack was persistent, enthusiastic and I reckoned he’d accuse me of having a closed mind if I wouldn’t read this book. ‘Only one bookshop in the city sells it,’ he said. That made me suspicious, but reluctantly I relented. It was absolutely as bad a book as I’d feared, virtually suggesting demons explained everything from cancer to ingrown toenails. I wasn’t helped. Jack despaired of me.

But, at the same time, some advice has really helped. During a period of deep depression, I met a few times with a psychologist. I talked about getting angry with people, and then feeling guilty about my anger. ‘Why do they make you angry?’ she asked. I described promises and confidences not kept, untrue stories told, attempts to undermine my leadership. And more like those. ‘Alistair,’ she said strongly, ‘any of us would be angry when people do things like that. You’re human! You’re bound to be angry. You need to be kinder to yourself.’ Her words hit home. Anger can get out of hand, but it’s also a natural reaction when harm is done to you. She was right: I did need to be kinder to myself. I’ve always appreciated that advice.

So, how do we know what advice to listen to? Here’s what I’ve learned.

Simon’s advice may not be equal to Sarah’s advice    The seriousness with which advice should be taken isn’t only about what’s said but about who’s saying it. If Simon is not someone you trust, but Sarah has proven her worth, you listen much more seriously to her than to him.

I met with Dan right at the start of my time heading up a large mission agency. It was a get-to-know-you conversation, during which I asked, ‘Dan, what are the important things we should be doing next?’

‘I don’t think we should be doing anything different,’ he said. ‘We’ve been through a lot of change. Now we need to settle down, consolidate, allow us to get used to things as they are.’

Since this was only an introductory chat, I didn’t tell him ‘Settling down is the last thing we need’. But he was wrong. The agency had begun to change, but only begun. We needed a sharper strategic focus, a major management reorganisation, a fresh approach to fundraising, an upgrade to technology, and a clearer message to our supporters. All of that in the next year, two years at most. Dan was only three years off retirement, and wanted a quiet life as he eased himself out. His was not the voice I needed to listen to.

Who advice comes from matters.

Does the advice-giver have the knowledge to justify their advice?    Modern-day church ministry is dogged by ‘latest fad’ movements. Maybe they’ve always happened, and movements just come and go more rapidly these days. The latest was in town – yet another ‘new move of the Spirit’ – and it was helping some people. But it promoted the idea that all you needed for holiness were supernatural experiences which would move you instantly from sinner to saint. There was no mention of denying self, and striving day by day to live God’s way. The movement offered zero to hero in half an hour. So, in a Sunday morning sermon I clarified what was right and what was wrong. When the service was over, Kevin was waiting.

‘I don’t think your theology was right this morning,’ Kevin said.

‘Okay, please tell me where you think I went wrong.’

‘Well, it was different from what I was hearing at meetings I went to last week.’

I asked Kevin to explain the ways in which my theology was different, but he wasn’t at all clear about that. A theological discussion wasn’t for Kevin who had probably never read a single book on doctrine. He was a good friend and a lovely Christian, but not equipped to give me theological advice.

Doctors have told me the patient they dread begins the consultation with: ‘I’ve looked up my symptoms on the internet, and…’ Usually they’ve concluded they have some horrible disease. They don’t, but are hard to convince. They’ve no medical training at all, but presume to tell the doctor their medical condition.

Advice-givers should have some credentials to support what they’re saying.

Does the advice-giver have the experience to justify their advice?    There’s an old saying about not judging a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes (or moccasins). The message is this: only when you see, hear, feel and think like another can you understand that person. True.

But some who gave me advice knew little of the realities of my life and work:

Life as a pastor

  • Being available 24/7, and discovering the only way to have a vacation was to leave town
  • At one hour being with parents rejoicing at the safe arrival of their new baby, at the next hour consoling a family because their ten-year-old had been knocked from his bicycle and killed
  • Having no option but to produce two 4000 word thoughtful and stimulating sermons by Sunday, with no option to postpone

 Life as a CEO

  • Having oversight of the wellbeing and work of hundreds
  • Knowing the whole organisation would be judged by what I said and did
  • Accepting responsibility for the future of a 200+ year old mission agency

And much more than these snippets.

Most who gave me advice had never lived that life, never carried major leadership responsibilities, never felt weary to the bone day after day after day, never had to end a friend’s employment because their work was poor, never had to account for an annual budget of millions, never thought about their answerability to God for the people in their care.

One businessman thought he could tell me how to manage my time. He explained that he had many appointments every day, so when his schedule was full his assistant told people they couldn’t see him until a free time came which might be weeks away. He advised me to have that policy too.

Really? As if I could refuse to see the person just told he’s got three months to live, or not visit the family whose 16-year-old has run away, or not talk with the seriously depressed person planning suicide, or not spend time with the wife whose husband has died and she has a funeral to arrange. The businessman was well-meaning but unaware of the realities of my life.

Advice is rarely good if it comes from someone who doesn’t know and empathise with your experiences and obligations . They haven’t walked in your shoes.

Is the advice-giver cranky? (Americans mostly use the word ‘cranky’ to mean irritable, but I’m using the word in the British sense of eccentric or strange.)

There’s no shortage of eccentric people. Most work places and churches have them. Their odd-ball ideas can be stimulating and challenging because they see the world differently, and we can all benefit from that. Up to a point. But when cranky people pushed their views on me, things got difficult.

Cameron was strange. He’d been in many churches, but, he said, none were really right for him. He was filled with ideas of what church should be like, one of which was that we should drop most of our modern worship songs and go back to singing the great hymns and anthems of the past. ‘That’s what people are saying they want, you know’ he assured me.

By then I’d developed a particular distrust of the phrase ‘people are saying’. I usually responded with ‘How many people?’ to which the reluctant answer would be ‘two or three’ – not too impressive.

I asked Cameron ‘Which people are saying that?’

‘All those I’ve spoken to,’ he replied.

I already knew that, because I’d heard from some of them. Cameron was about six foot three inches tall, broad chested, and equipped with a voice and force of personality that matched his physique. He’d accost someone and give his speech about the need for the old hymns. They’d listen reluctantly but patiently. And then, when his diatribe ended, he’d look them straight in the eye and say: ‘You agree…?’ And they would answer ‘yes’ because they were desperate for the conversation to end. But they didn’t mean it.

But, as far as Cameron was concerned, they shared his view. And now he was telling me we should go back to worship music of 150 years earlier. I doubted if there were even two in the congregation who really shared Cameron’s views, and I would have been derelict to follow his advice. We changed nothing. We try not to judge, but a good pastor or leader can’t follow one person’s whim.

Does the advice-giver grasp the whole picture?    There are many things wrong with the image of a CEO sitting on top of an organisational pyramid, and it’s even less appropriate for the role of a pastor. But, I’ll use it just to make the point that the person at the top has the best view of the wider landscape. Those further down will see more clearly what’s working on the ground, but not the big picture.

Leaders should see the big picture. They should know the range of strategic options. They should understand the context around them, how it’s changing, what’s in their favour and what’s against. And know the strengths and weaknesses of the organisation, including the skills of members and staff. They should be aware of the views held by staff, volunteers, supporters.

But most advice-givers can’t see the big picture. That doesn’t mean the person ‘at the top’ should make all the decisions. That would limit all wisdom to one person. But it does mean this: that the value of someone’s advice is limited by what they know of the big picture.

For example, suppose a fundraiser wants their budget tripled (‘We could make such a big impact with more investment in advertising’) but has no idea of the effect that diversion of resources would have on other areas of work. They think they have a great plan, but it’s not because they lack a wider understanding. Their ideas won’t get much attention.

But, in the end, good advice is good advice    The points I’ve listed earlier are valid. There are good reasons to be wary about whose advice you take. But – notwithstanding all the caution – good advice is always worth having, and it can come from the unlikeliest of people.

During an interview related to becoming pastor in Aberdeen, I was asked what my priority would be if appointed. I didn’t hesitate. ‘Mission!’ For several minutes I enthused about the importance of churches reaching out into their communities with the gospel message and showing practical love and care for needy people. I was passionate about mission. So passionate that when I stopped there was silence. Until one older lady spoke. ‘That’s all very well, but please remember that many of us just need a pastor who’ll look after us.’

Afterwards I mulled over her words. I didn’t really like what she’d said. A church can’t exist to benefit its existing members. Its focus must be on the world, and bringing God’s love there. That lady was representing a wrong view of what the church was for. And yet an inner voice told me not to miss the wisdom in her words about the role of the pastor. The world couldn’t be a pastor’s only focus. The members – the lonely, the sick, the worried, the broken-hearted – they had needs too. There was a lot of value in what she’d said. When I became pastor I did all I could to honour her request. It came from an unexpected person, but it was the best advice.

None of us are all-knowing or all-wise, so we need advice. There is good advice to be had, but it must come from reliable sources. Leaders who choose their advice wisely become better and stronger in their roles. They win respect, endure, and even enjoy what they do.


If there’s been any good advice in this blog, please do what Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde said and pass it on. (Use the ‘Share’ button, or forward www.occasionallywise.com to them.) But ignore his comment that good advice is never of use to oneself. Good advice is always good to have.