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Clues on leadership…

28 Dec 2010

Leadership . . . there’s a clue in the name

LeaderI know it sounds kind of obvious, but when people ask me what is the difference between leadership and management, I find myself drawn to flippant sounding answers . . . Leaders lead and Managers, well – they manage!

Too facetious? Well let’s take an example. Clearly the differences between leadership and management crop up in all sorts of different circumstances and I may well come back to others in subsequent posts. But for today, I shall return to the theme of ‘wicked’ as opposed to technical problems.

Technical problems are those for which we have the necessary know-how and procedures. Wicked problems are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. They cannot be solved by someone who provides answers from on high. They are complex, with multiple causes, all of which interact to create the conditions that define the ‘problem’; they are emergent. That is, they are created by the conditions that give rise to them and constantly change as those conditions change.

In my view, wicked problems demand leadership; technical problems can be managed.

Why? Firstly, because it takes a real leader to admit that they don’t have all the answers – and that, by definition, is the situation with wicked problems.

Secondly it takes a al leader to communicate with people about the conditions that give rise to the problem, to encourage people inside and often outside an organisation to ‘co-own’ the problem and to foster creativity. Because emergent ‘problems’ require emergent ‘solutions’. In other words – a combined set of approaches to address the underlying conditions that give rise to the problem. And those ‘solutions’ must be capable of adapting, as those underlying conditions change.

Lastly, wicked problems demand individuals who are able to step back and look at the big picture. Perhaps that in itself is a hackneyed phrase, but in this instance it has real meaning. It involves looking at the wicked problem as a whole – all of it’s underlying conditions – and seeing how well or badly the range of mechanisms adopted to tackle those conditions are doing. Like a conductor of an orchestra, the leader needs to seek more from the wind section here, or less from the strings there, keeping the actions in step and aligned with the overall ‘score’ – the desire to address the wicked problem.

So leaders lead; they don’t necessarily ‘do’ and they don’t necessarily ‘manage’ (though they often do both of these too). They engage with the community of those affected by a wicked problem, encourage them, foster / unlock innovation and are prepared to be humble in the face of both success and failure.

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