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p. 152. What isn't leadership?locked

  • Keith Grint


‘What isn't leadership?’ questions how we might differentiate leadership from management. Management and leadership, as two forms of authority rooted in the distinction between certainty and uncertainty, can also be related to Rittell and Webber's typology of ‘tame’ and ‘wicked’ problems. Elegant, or single-mode, solutions can be used for tame problems, but for wicked problems — resolving global warming, for instance — requires a clumsy solution. A critical component of a necessarily clumsy solution is to combine elements of all three cultural types: the individualist, the egalitarian, and the hierarchist. Within each of these types are techniques that, when combined, might just allow some progress to be made.

If, as Chapter 1 suggested, we probably have markedly different definitions of leadership, how might we differentiate leadership from management? This chapter poses one way of doing this. Much of the writing in the field of leadership research is grounded in a typology that distinguishes between leadership and management as different forms of authority – that is, legitimate power – with leadership tending to embody longer time periods, a more strategic perspective, and a requirement to resolve novel problems. Another way to put this is that the division is rooted partly in the context: management is the equivalent of déjà vu (seen this before), whereas leadership is the equivalent of vu jàdé (never seen this before). If this is valid, when acting as a manager, you are required to engage the requisite process – the standard operating procedure (SOP) – to resolve the previously experienced problem the last time it emerged. In contrast, when you are acting as a leader, you are required to facilitate the construction of an innovative response to the novel or recalcitrant problem.

Management and leadership, as two forms of authority rooted in the distinction between certainty and uncertainty, can also be related to Rittell and Webber's typology of ‘tame’ and ‘wicked’ problems. A tame problem may be complicated but is resolvable through unilinear acts, and it is likely to have occurred before. In other words, there is only a limited degree of uncertainty, and thus p. 16it is associated with management. Tame problems are akin to puzzles – for which there is always an answer. The (scientific) manager's role, therefore, is to provide the appropriate process to solve the problem. Examples would include timetabling the railways, building a nuclear plant, training in the army, or planned heart surgery.

A wicked problem is complex, rather than just complicated – that is, it cannot be removed from its environment, solved, and returned without affecting the environment. Moreover, there is no clear relationship between cause and effect. Such problems are often intractable. For instance, trying to develop a National Health Service (NHS) on the basis of a scientific approach (assuming it was a tame problem) would suggest providing everyone with all the services and medicines they required based only on their medical needs. However, with an ageing population, an increasing medical ability to intervene and maintain life, and a decreasing financial resource to fund such intervention, we have a potentially infinite increase in demand but a finite level of economic resource, so there cannot be a scientific or medical, or tame, solution to the problem of the NHS. In sum, we cannot provide everything for everybody; at some point, we need to make a political decision about who gets what and based on which criteria. This inherently contested arena is typical of a wicked problem. If we think about the NHS as the ‘NIS’ – the National Illness Service – then we have a different understanding of the problem because it is essentially a series of tame problems: fixing a broken leg is the equivalent of a tame problem – there is a scientific solution and medical professionals in hospitals know how to fix it. But if you run (sorry, crawl) into a restaurant for your broken leg to be fixed, it becomes a wicked problem because it's unlikely that anyone there will have the knowledge or the resources to fix it. Thus the category of problems is subjective not objective – what kind of a problem you have depends on where you are and what you already know.

p. 17Moreover, many of the problems that the NHS deals with – obesity, drug abuse, violence – are not simply problems of health, they are often deeply complex social problems that sit across and between different government departments and institutions, so attempts to treat them through a single institutional framework are almost bound to fail. Indeed, because there is often no ‘stopping point’ with wicked problems – that is, the point at which the problem is solved (for example, there will be no more crime because we have solved it) – we often end up having to admit that we cannot solve wicked problems. Conventionally, we associate leadership with precisely the opposite – the ability to solve problems, act decisively, and to know what to do. But we cannot know how to solve wicked problems, and therefore we need to be very wary of acting decisively precisely because we cannot know what to do. If we knew what to do, it would be a tame problem not a wicked problem. Yet the pressure to act decisively often leads us to try to solve the problem as if it were a tame problem. When global warming first emerged as a problem, some of the responses concentrated on solving the problem through science (a tame response), manifest in the development of biofuels; but we now know that the first generation of biofuels appear to have denuded the world of significant food resources, so that what looked like a solution actually became another problem. Again, this is typical of what happens when we try to solve wicked problems – other problems emerge to compound the original problem. So we can make things better or worse – we can drive our cars slower and less or faster and more – but we may not be able to solve global warming, we may just have to learn to live with a different world and make the best of it we can. In other words, we cannot start again and design a perfect future – though many political and religious extremists might want us to.

The ‘we’ in this is important because it signifies the importance of the collective in addressing wicked problems. Tame problems might have individual solutions in the sense that individuals are likely to know how to deal with them. But since wicked problems p. 18are partly defined by the absence of an answer on the part of the leader, then it behoves the individual leader to ask the right kind of questions to engage the collective in an attempt to come to terms with the problem. In other words, wicked problems require the transfer of authority from individual to collective because only collective engagement can hope to address the problem. The uncertainty involved in wicked problems implies that leadership, as I am defining it, is not a science but an art – the art of engaging a community in facing up to complex collective problems.

Examples of wicked problems would include developing a transport strategy, or a response to global warming, or a response to antisocial behaviour, or a national health system. Wicked problems are not necessarily rooted in longer time frames than tame problems, because often an issue that appears to be tame can be turned into a (temporary) wicked problem by delaying the decision. For example, President Kennedy's actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis were often based on asking questions of his civilian assistants that required some time for reflection – despite the pressure from his military advisers to provide instant answers. Had Kennedy accepted the advice of the American Hawks, we would have seen a third set of problems that fall outside the wicked/tame dichotomy – a ‘critical’ problem, in this case probably a nuclear war.

A critical problem, that is, a crisis, is presented as self-evident in nature, as encapsulating very little time for decision-making and action, and it is often associated with authoritarianism. Here there is virtually no uncertainty about what needs to be done, at least in the behaviour of the commander, whose role is to take the required decisive action – that is, to provide the answer to the problem, not to engage SOPs (management) if these delay the decision, or ask questions and seek collaborative assistance (leadership).

Translated into critical problems, I suggest that for such crises we do need decision-makers who are god-like in their decisiveness p. 19and their ability to provide the answer to the crisis. And since we reward people who are good in crises (and ignore people who are such good managers that there are very few crises), commanders soon learn to seek out (or reframe situations as) crises. Of course, it may be that the commander remains privately uncertain about whether the action is appropriate or the presentation of the situation as a crisis is persuasive, but that uncertainty will probably not be apparent to the followers of the commander. Examples would include the immediate response to a major train crash, a leak of radioactivity from a nuclear plant, a military onslaught, a heart attack, an industrial strike, the loss of employment or a loved one, or a terrorist attack such as 9/11 or the 7 July bombings in London.

These three forms of authority – command, management, and leadership – are, in turn, another way of suggesting that the role of those responsible for decision-making is to find the appropriate answer, process, and question to address the problem, respectively. This is not meant as a discrete typology but an heuristic device to enable us to understand why those charged with decision-making sometimes appear to act in ways that others find incomprehensible. Thus, I am not suggesting that the correct decision-making process lies in the correct analysis of the situation – that would be to generate a deterministic approach – but I am suggesting that decision-makers tend to legitimize their actions on the basis of a persuasive account of the situation. In short, the social construction of the problem legitimizes the deployment of a particular form of authority.

Take, for example, the state of public finances during the recession that began in 2008. Many countries were mired in debates about which public expenditures to cut, and which – if any – to protect. Indeed, politicians of all varieties seemed to be falling over themselves to acquire the commander's mantle to inflict pain upon the profligate public sector wasters of our tax revenues. But this was to mistake the cause for the effect – the cause of the problem p. 20was the profligate investment bankers not the parsimonious public sector employees! Moreover, it is often the case that the same individual or group with authority will switch between the command, management, and leadership roles as they perceive – and constitute – the problem as critical, tame, or wicked, or even as a single problem that itself shifts across these boundaries. Indeed, this movement – often perceived as ‘inconsistency’ by the decision-maker's opponents – is crucial to success as the situation, or at least our perception of it, changes. That persuasive account of the problem partly rests in the decision-maker's access to – and preference for – particular forms of power, and herein lies the irony of ‘leadership’: it remains the most difficult of approaches, and one that many decision-makers will try to avoid at all costs.

The notion of ‘power’ suggests that we need to consider how different approaches to, and forms of, power fit with this typology of authority. Amongst the most useful for our purposes is Etzioni's typology of compliance, which distinguished between coercive, calculative, and normative compliance. Coercive or physical power was related to ‘total’ institutions, such as prisons or armies; calculative compliance was related to ‘rational’ institutions, such as companies; and normative compliance was related to institutions or organizations based on shared values, such as clubs and professional societies. This compliance typology fits well with the typology of problems: critical problems are often associated with coercive compliance; tame problems are associated with calculative compliance; and wicked problems are associated with normative compliance – you cannot force people to follow you in addressing a wicked problem because the nature of the problem demands that followers have to want to help.

This typology can be plotted along the relationship between two axes, as shown in Figure 2, with the vertical axis representing increasing uncertainty about the solution to the problem – in the behaviour of those in authority – and the horizontal axis p. 21

2. Typology of problems, power, and authority

representing the increasing need for collaboration in resolving the problem.

This might be regarded as obvious to many people – but if it is, why do we remain unable to effect such change? To answer that, I want to turn to cultural theory and explore some so-called ‘elegant solutions’.

Culture and addiction to elegance

Mary Douglas argued that we could probably capture most cultures on the basis of two discrete criteria: grid and group. ‘Grid’ relates to the significance of roles and rules in a culture – some are very rigid, such as a government bureaucracy, but others are very loose or liberal, such as an informal club. ‘Group’ relates to the importance of the group in a culture – some cultures are wholly oriented around the group, such as a football team, while others are more individually oriented, such as a gathering of p. 22

3. Four primary ways of organizing social life

entrepreneurs. When these points are plotted on a two-by-two matrix, we derive Figure 3.

When a culture embodies both ‘high grid’ and ‘high group’, we tend to see rigid hierarchies, such as in the military, in which individuals are less relevant than the group. When the culture remains ‘high group’-oriented but lacks the concern for rules and roles in ‘low grid’, we see egalitarian cultures, epitomized by those organizations in which the group meeting is sacred and the search for consensus critical. When the ‘grid’ remains low and is matched by an equal indifference to the ‘group’, we tend to see individualist cultures – the land of entrepreneurs, rational choice, and market-loving politicians for whom any notion of the collective or rules is perceived as an unnecessary inhibitor of efficiency and freedom. The final category is that of the fatalist, where the group dimension is missing and the isolated individuals believe themselves to be undermined by the power of rules and roles.

As so defined, such cultures tend to be self-supporting and philosophically consistent. In other words, hierarchists perceive p. 23the world through hierarchist lenses, such that problems are understood as manifestations of the absence of sufficient rules or the lack of enforcement of rules by the group or society. In contrast, egalitarians see the same problem as one connected to the weakness of the collective community – it is less about rules and more about the community generating greater solidarity to solve the problem. Individualists would have little faith in this; the problem is obviously (for them) to do with the individuals – individuals should be more responsible for their own situation. Fatalists, however, have given up, for the rules are against them and there is no group to help them out of their malaise.

Now the problem is that such internally consistent – or elegant – modes of understanding the world are fine for dealing with critical or tame problems because we know how to solve them and previous approaches have worked. Individualists can solve the problem of decreasing carbon emissions from cars – a tame problem open to a scientific solution; but they cannot solve global warming – a wicked problem. Egalitarians can help ex-offenders back into the community – a tame problem; but they cannot solve crime – a wicked problem. And hierarchists can improve rule enforcement for the fraudulent abuse of social services – a tame problem; but they cannot solve poverty – a wicked problem. Indeed, wicked problems don't offer themselves up to be solved by such elegant approaches precisely because these problems lie outside and across several different cultures and institutions. But because we are prisoners of our own cultural preferences, we become addicted to them and have great difficulty stepping outside our world to see something differently. As Proust put it: ‘the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes’.

Why elegant approaches don't solve wicked problems but clumsy solutions might

If single-mode (elegant) solutions can only ever address tame or critical problems, we need to consider how to adopt all three p. 24in what are called clumsy solutions. In fact, we need to eschew the elegance of the architect's approach to problems – start with a clean piece of paper and design the perfect building anew – and adopt the world of the bricoleur, the do-it-yourself craftworker. Or to adopt the rather more prosaic language of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, we need to begin by recognizing that, ‘out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made’. Let us take global warming to illustrate this.

Figure 4 summarizes the issue. Hierarchists consider the problem to be a result of inadequate rules and their enforcement – a better Kyoto-style agreement is necessary. But egalitarians might argue that it isn't the rules that need altering and enforcing but our communal attitude to the planet that needs to change – we must develop more sustainable ways to live, not just obey the rules better. But for individualists, both alternatives misunderstand the problem – and therefore the solution is to carve out the freedoms that will encourage entrepreneurs to generate the technological innovations that will save us. For fatalists, of course, there is no

4. Elegant (single-mode) solutions to global warming

p. 25hope – we are all doomed. The problem here is that none of these elegant solutions actually generates sufficient diversity to address the complexity of the problem. Rules might facilitate safe driving, but they would probably not be effective in saving the planet. Nor can we simply abandon our centralized cities and all live in self-sufficient communities in the countryside. Similarly, although technological innovations will be critical and market pressures may help, we cannot rely on these to solve the problem. Indeed, global warming may not be solvable, in the sense that we can go back to the beginning and reclaim an unpolluted world, and because different interests are at stake in different approaches to the ‘solution’, the best we can hope for is a politically negotiated agreement to limit the damage as soon as possible. That calls for a non-linear, nay ‘crooked’, response, to stitch together an inelegant, or clumsy, solution combining all three modes of understanding, and making use of the fatalists' acquiescence to go along with the changing flow of public opinion and action. As shown in Figure 5, what we actually need is to use all three frameworks to make progress here, through the creation of a ‘clumsy solution space’.

5. Clumsy solution for the wicked problem of global warming

p. 26

6. Clumsy approaches to wicked problems

So what would a clumsy solution actually look like? Figure 6 implies that a critical component of a necessarily clumsy solution is to combine elements of all three cultural types: the individualist, the egalitarian, and the hierarchist. Within each of these types are techniques that, when combined, might just prise the wicked problem open far enough to make some progress with it. Let us address each of these in turn, recognizing that each wicked problem is likely to be different and that only a particular combination of techniques and issues might succeed. In other words, this is not a ‘painting-by-numbers’ approach to guarantee a resolution but an experimental art form that may – or may not – work.


H1: Questions not answers

The first step here is for the hierarchist to acknowledge that the leader's role has to switch from providing the answers to asking the p. 27questions. The leader, then, should initiate a different narrative that prepares the collective for collective responsibility. Indeed, the reason that this sits within the hierarchists' camp is that only the hierarchical leader has the authority to reverse his or her contribution from one of answers to questions. Linked to this switch in approaches from expert to investigator is a related requirement that hierarchists are most suited for: relationships not structures.

H2: Relationships not structures

Traditionally, change models imply that if failure occurs despite the model, it must be because the leader has failed to pull the right levers in the right sequence. But this machine metaphor is precisely why leaders find change so difficult – because power is not something you can possess and thus there are no levers to pull. Power is a relationship, and change depends upon the relationships between leaders and followers: in effect, it is followers who make or break change strategies, not leaders alone, because organizations are systems not machines.

H3: Permission-giving

The traditional authority of the formal leader remains a significant inhibitor of followers' discretion: unless the boss has told you that open debate and disagreement about work issues are welcome – and then demonstrated that by not disciplining those engaged in constructive dissent – then there probably will not be much debate, and subordinates will allow their organizations to founder because they have not been given permission to save the boss. This is why hierarchists are critical to the clumsy methodology – because they have to authorize a change to the norm.


I1: Positive deviance not negative acquiescence

Individualists are often those who deviate from the norm, and this behaviour can be critically important. For instance, in 1990, Jerry p. 28and Monique Sternin went to Vietnam for the charity Save the Children. Why, the Sternins wondered, were some children well nourished in the midst of general malnourishment? Mainstream Vietnamese culture generated a very conventional wisdom on malnutrition – it was the combined effect of poor sanitation, poor food distribution, poverty, and poor water. On the other hand, some children – and not the highest-status children – were well nourished because their mothers – the positive deviants – ignored the conventional culture that mothers should:

avoid food considered as low class/common – such as field shrimps and crabs;

not feed children who had diarrhoea;

let children feed themselves, or feed them twice a day at the most.

Instead, these mothers:

used low-class/common food – which was very nutritious;

fed children who had diarrhoea – it's critical to recovery;

actively fed children many times during the day (self-fed children drop food on the floor, so it's contaminated, and children's stomachs can take only a finite amount of food at any one time, so even feeding them twice a day is inadequate).

In short, the problems in organizations are often self-generated, but the solutions are often there too, it's just that usually we tend not to look for them.

I2: Negative capability

While hierarchists tend to be uncomfortable with ambiguity, individualists thrive on it. The poet Keats called ‘negative capability’ the ability to remain comfortable with uncertainty, and wicked problems are inherently uncertain and ambiguous, so the real skill is not in removing the uncertainty but in managing to remain effective despite it. In short, negative capability generates p. 29the time and space to reflect upon the issue and not to have to react to somebody else's agenda or to be decisive – but decisively wrong. Stein's comparison of decision-making in the Apollo 13 space mission and at Three Mile Island captures this issue well in situations in which experience is critical to providing help in stressful situations. Thus the ‘cosmology episodes’ that strike both Apollo 13 and Three Mile Island – when ‘the world no longer seems a rational, orderly system’ – provoke different responses from those responsible for decision-making. The ‘cosmology episode’ on Apollo 13 – an explosion – left the astronauts short of food, oxygen, power, water, and hope. But avoiding the natural temptation to jump to conclusions, the ground crew, through slow, careful analysis of the problems – and through the construction of a makeshift carbon dioxide scrubber (typical of the bricoleur's approach) – enabled Apollo 13 to return safely. In contrast, in the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, the ‘cosmology episode’ led to instant actions being taken which unwittingly made the situation worse. In effect, the decision-makers were decisive but wrong, and just to compound the situation, they then denied any evidence suggesting that the problem had not been resolved. So the ability to tolerate anxiety and to ensure that it does not become excessive (leading to panic) or denied (leading to inaction) generated different sense-making actions in these scenarios.

I3: Constructive dissent not destructive consent

Finally, individualists are excellent at resisting the siren calls of both hierarchists and egalitarians to fall in line, either to the rules or the group. Since Milgram's and Zimbardo's infamous compliance experiments in the 1960s, we have known that most people, most of the time, comply with authority, even if that leads to the infliction of pain upon innocent others – providing the rationale is accepted by the followers, they are exempt from responsibility, and they only inflict pain (‘engage in harm’) incrementally. Put another way, the difficulty for our leader facing a wicked problem is not of securing consent but dissent. Consent is relatively easily acquired by an authoritarian, but it cannot address p. 30wicked problems because such consent is often destructive, and destructive consent is the bedfellow of irresponsible followership and a wholly inadequate frame for addressing wicked problems. What we actually need is constructive dissenters who are willing to tell their boss that his or her decision is wrong (as, for example, Field Marshal Alan Brooke frequently did with Winston Churchill during the Second World War). So what about egalitarians – why do we need them?


E1: Collective intelligence not individual genius

Typically, we attribute both success and failure to individual leaders. In fact, the more significant the success or failure, the more likely we are to do this, even though we usually have little evidence for linking the event to the individual. Yet when we actually examine how success or failure occurs, it is more often than not a consequence of social rather than individual action. For example, Archie Norman, the British retail entrepreneur, rescued Asda from near bankruptcy in 1991 and sold it to Wal-Mart for £6.7bn in 1999. But underlying this phenomenal success was not the work of an isolated individual genius but a talented team, including, at board level: Justin King (subsequently CEO Sainsbury), Richard Baker (subsequently CEO Boots), Andy Hornby (subsequently CEO HBOS, then Boots), and Allan Leighton (subsequently Chair Royal Mail). In short, Asda's success was built on collective intelligence not individual genius. This approach is particularly important to wicked problems because they demand the collective responses typical of systems not individuals – it is the community that must take responsibility and not displace it upon the leader.

E2: Community of fate not a fatalist community

Anne Glover, a local community leader in Braunstone, Leicester, UK, is credited with turning her own fatalist community into a ‘community of fate’ when she mobilized her local neighbours to p. 31unite against a gang of youths engaging in antisocial behaviour and ruling their council estate through fear. Such fear had effectively demobilized the community, turning it into a disparate group of isolated individuals – a fatalist community – all complaining about the gang problem but feeling unable to do anything about it. When Glover persuaded a large group to go out – as a group – and confront the gang, the gang moved on and its members were eventually removed from the estate. There is more to this than simply being brave enough to do something and willing to take the risk that it will not be easy; it is about recognizing the importance of building social capital to nurture a collective identity which generates a community of fate.

E3: Empathy not egotism

Finally, the last egalitarian technique lies in the ability to step into another's shoes, to generate an empathy that facilitates understanding of the other and is a pre-requisite for addressing wicked problems, but how might we acquire it? Jones's answer is to become an anthropologist of your own organization, to walk a mile in the shoes of those whom you lead, to experience the life of those whom you want to engage in the collective effort, because if you cannot understand how they see the problem, how can you mobilize them? This is radically different from our usual methods for acquiring knowledge about how our organizations work, because we know that what people say in focus groups or in surveys does not represent how they normally see the world. Many CEOs and corporate leaders already work on their own shop-floor for a regular period of time – but many more do not, and then find themselves surprised when the bottom of the hierarchy doesn't respond in the way that the focus group or latest staff survey had predicted.


The complexity of many contemporary issues appears to justify this shift from tame problems and elegant solutions to the clumsy solutions more suited to addressing wicked problems. But in fact, p. 32many, indeed most, issues are tame not wicked and require people only to carry out their normal duties – without the help of bosses wielding long screwdrivers to micro-manage them. A real danger is that we become prisoners of our own cultural preferences – hierarchists become addicted to command, egalitarians become addicted to collaborative leadership, and individualists become addicted to managing all problems as if they were all tame. In effect, we become addicted to elegance, when we ought to be cultivating a clumsy approach if and when our own approaches prove inadequate to the task. This might explain why we find change so difficult – because, for example, when public sector organizations work collaboratively in partnerships to address wicked problems, like alcohol abuse or antisocial behaviour, the various partners fail (or refuse) to authorize each other to take the lead. Similarly, when nations try to address global problems, like global warming, the same egalitarian inhibition often stymies progress. One way of rethinking our approach to this is to recognize that hierarchists also have a part to play: collaborative leadership still requires someone or somebody to take a lead. As the State of California has discovered, when it requires a bare majority of those who bother to vote to increase public expenditure but a two-thirds majority of the legislature to increase tax revenues (or set a budget), sometimes you can have too much egalitarianism. But was it always thus? Did leaders lead in very different ways in past times? The next chapter addresses these questions.