A wicked way to lead

Contemporary slang makes problems less daunting, writes Kate Cooper

Keith Grint’s popularization of Rittel and Webber’s notion of wicked problems has captured many an imagination. At last, it seemed, someone had described the complexities, ambiguities, contradictions and general messiness of the challenges of leadership. Key to its widespread adoption was Grint’s taking advantage of the slang inversion of ‘wicked’ – which carried with it positive connotations rather than the more traditional associations with evil, treachery and sorcery.

Grint had in 1997 attempted to make sense of the evolving field of leadership in his book Leadership: Classical, Contemporary and Critical Approaches. It challenged much leadership thinking. Crucially, Grint supported the post-heroic dominant discourse which rejects an essentialist view that leaders have an underlying and unchanging essence. Instead, he embraced a non-essentialist standpoint, where leaders are constructed and interpreted through different lenses.

Yet it was the application of this non-essentialist perspective that was the radical leap: we cannot accept an unchanging definition of a situation or context – they too are described and constructed subjectively.

So, not only do we have to relinquish ideas of the ‘born’ leader, we must also accept that the volatility, unpredictability and novelty of a situation is also a matter of personal interpretation and judgment. The acceptance of the definitions says more about the relative power of the definers than the reality of the situations that are being defined.

So, according to Grint and his followers, we have wicked problems; we have no certainty in the definition of what makes a leader or how we define the situations and contexts that leaders find themselves in. Grint presented his analysis as two intersecting continuums rather than as binaries – and it is this approach which is probably most helpful now.

In today’s world – so frequently characterized as VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) – we are beset with wicked problems. We are less able to draw conclusions about cause and effect. We are at the mercy of technology’s increasing capability to disrupt all manner of industries. We must sustain the collision of cultures as we work across continents in a globalizing world. The challenge to certainties and objectivity from post-modernism means we have never been further from ‘optimum’ solutions to problems. In the untidy world of organizations led by people who are increasingly made aware of how much they don’t know, optimization – did it ever exist – is no longer an option.

It is the very acceptance of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that means we must also recognize that predictability, certainty, stability and clarity are the other ends of the continuum. Neither end is inherently bad or good – indeed each supports the other. Leadership decisions will need to be made knowing that we experience both. Instead of being anxious about the unpredictability of the situations and contexts we find ourselves in, we can learn from understanding the complementary nature of what are not opposites but two sides of the same coin.

This recognition of ‘two sides of the same coin’ and what some might consider paradoxical situations underpins Dilemma Theory. Charles Hampden-Turner’s work across cultures – and his intent to reconcile rather than separate cultural differences –led to the development of Dilemma Theory.

Drawing on Hampden-Turner’s work, we recognize two ends of the continuum not as mutually exclusive either/ors, but as there being merit at both ends of the continuum. This challenges our tendency to think in terms of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and be fearful of difference – and encourages a more thoughtful response to conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity.

If we use the contemporary meaning of ‘wicked’ as ‘excellent’ to define our problems, they become immediately less threatening. If we view VUCA environments as being comprised not of opposing but complementary forces, everything seems rather more manageable. This quells the anxiety that – as neuroscience has it – impedes effective performance.

— Kate Cooper is head of research, policy and standards at the Institute of Leadership & Management