Wicked Problems and the Leadership Challenge

Jun 25, 2021 2 min read
Wicked Problems and the Leadership Challenge

Some time ago, I was fortunate to attend a leadership master class with Keith Grint. His presentation was about wicked problems and leadership. In this post, I briefly explore one definition of leadership and introduce tame problems, critical problems, and wicked problems.

A Definition of Leadership

In Leadership: a Very Short Introduction, Keith Grint differentiates leadership from management. He reasons that the difference between leadership and management is context. That is, management is equivalent to déjà vu whereas leadership is equivalent to vu jàdé. Literally, this is the difference between something one has experienced before, and something one has not.

In other words, managers tend to resolve previously experienced problems, whereas leaders must innovate to solve novel or unruly problems. For the manager, problems are complicated but rarely complex: there is little uncertainty because problems are tame.

However, managers also experience critical problems. That is, situations when difficult or important decisions must be made. But there is certainty, and we know what decisions to take.

In contrast, leaders deal with wicked problems.

It is about the questions not the answers.

Wicked Problems and Leadership

Wicked problems are complex, difficult challenges. What’s more, they are subjective and cannot be separated from their environment.

Wicked problems are hard to control and rarely eliminated.

A wicked problem has no known solution because there is no clear relationship between cause and effect. Likewise, wicked problems are open-ended, i.e., the need for multiple partial solutions.

Solving wicked problems necessitates leadership.

Forms of Authority

Thus, we have three forms of authority and three different approaches to power.

For instance, when a problem or situation threatens the survival of the organization, the leader uses coercive or physical power. We need decisive action, and people respond to a call to action during a crisis.

Managers use rational power to deal with problems of compliance. For instance, when a service isn’t performing. The manager’s role is to solve puzzles for which there are always answers.

Wicked problems are different because they cannot be solved by the individual. Solving wicked problems is about engaging people and working together in a common purpose.

Leadership is about follower-ship. Coercion is ineffective when dealing with wicked problems. Followers must want to help!


Do you switch between command, management, and leadership roles? Why do you change roles? You are welcome to share your experience in the comments.

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