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Today’s problems need 'wicked leadership'

15 Sep 2017 By Dr Juliette Summers and Dr Brian Howieson

Complex organisational challenges mean we need to embrace collective deliberation and leadership voids

A 'wicked problem' is one that is complex (rather than just complicated); is often intractable; has no uni-linear solution; for which ‘solutions’ often generate other ‘problems’; and there is no right or wrong answer.

Wicked problems cannot be 'solved', but there are better or worse alternatives. Indeed, it seems that one has to be pretty smart even to be undecided about the solution to such problems. Whereas wicked problems were originally seen as relating to social issues (for example, poverty, equality or health), they are increasingly considered to be part of today’s organisational life and landscape; for instance, in situations of organisational change, where there are many stakeholders with different views, or where knowledge is uncertain or contested. Brexit may well be considered such an example.

Are traditional approaches to leadership development and training suitable for such contemporary problems in organisational life? Would 'wicked leadership' – which is about disempowering traditional organisational leadership and embracing the consequent leadership absence – serve us better instead?

Digital commons

The organisational structures of ‘digital commons’ websites such as Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap and WikiLeaks are particularly interesting because they do not derive leadership from conventional control and governance structures.

Wikipedia, for example, is composed of people and members of the public who come together voluntarily for a common purpose: to share their knowledge and experience, based upon trusted communities and reciprocal giving of services. In such organisations, we see a shift from expert guidance and direction to a more 'fluid hierarchy' or 'equipotentiality' as the driver of decision-making. This means that organisations’ members, employees or communities are acting without needing to seek formal permissions. They can self-direct using their own individual and collective agency as equals, in the sense that they are both superior and inferior to each other in their varying skills and areas of endeavour.

In order to operate, these digital commons demonstrate voluntary association through participation, transparency and accountability and ― while they have administrative support functions ― these do not control members’ organisational activity. In this way, these organisations are designed to operate without leadership as it is traditionally understood.

Embracing leadership absence

This brief analysis has highlighted the potential of thinking of leadership as a complex absence, and as a never-ending 'space'.

As wicked organisational challenges are likely to have no uni-linear ‘end’ solution, we do not think that they benefit from a traditional outcomes-based leadership approach. Therefore, wicked problems don’t require leadership ― of whatever form ― that focuses on the ends or outcomes of a process, the resolution of a problem or the ‘means to ends’ pathway. But they do require wicked leadership; ie a leadership space constructed and occupied by multiple empowered people where such space ― formerly occupied by leadership ― is occupied by unguided deliberation, conversation and mutuality among organisational members.

But this means disempowering traditional leadership and embracing the consequent leadership absence. Yet in classic and traditional leadership research, for example, where a lack of leadership has existed, the ideal has been to ‘fill’ it. In wicked leadership, we must embrace this lack no matter how uncomfortable it is for some.

Practically, the outcome of wicked leadership (and the lessons learned from the emerging experiences of the digital commons) is that we start to understand leadership as a public good ― owned, non-excludable and drawn on by all.

Perhaps, rather than a lack of leadership being a bad thing, such a lack is an essential if we are to reconceptualise the value of organisations, not just in monetary terms but in terms of their worth to society. In enabling businesses to contribute to what is valued by society, they have to be part of that society – not divorced from it. To achieve this, they might have to replace structures designed around notions of leadership with unguided deliberative spaces; where the space is occupied not by leaders or leadership, but by multiple identified values and worth – ie the public good. Perhaps, in this way, we might achieve a ‘fourth industrial revolution’?

Dr Brian Howieson is a senior lecturer in business and management at the University of Dundee, and Dr Juliette Summers is a lecturer in management at the University of St Andrews

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