Reflections on Leadership and Ethics in Complex Times Gail T. Fairhurst
Department of Communication, University of Cincinnati
ABSTRACT How do leaders make and justify decisions during exceedingly complex times? This question is examined through a focus on the roadblocks that leaders themselves throw in the way of their effectiveness; an ethical orienta- tion that seems increasingly lacking; and the growing need for collaboration, clumsy solutions, and organizations dedicated to civil discourse.
Every year, the World Economic Forum releases an “Outlook on the Global Agenda” report in which they ask their members to identify and prioritize the issues expected to be the most impactful on the world in the coming 12 to 18 months.1 They characterized 2014 as a year of unprecedented change, and it is no surprise given the trends that they named. They included (a) societal tensions in the Middle East and North Africa, (b) widening income disparities, (c) persistent structural unemploy- ment, (d) intensifying cyber threats, (e) inaction on climate change, (f) diminishing public con- fidence in economic policies, (g) a lack of values in leadership, (h) the expanding middle class in Asia, (i) the growing importance of megacities, and (j) the rapid spread of misinformation on line.
As you can see from this list, none of these problems looks easy to solve, and most would qualify as “wicked,” a term Rittel and Webber (1973) used to describe intractable problems that are incredibly complex and morph continuously. In my own research, I focus on the linguistics of problem setting and solving by leaders in situations with multiple tensions, and I can tell you from extensively interviewing them that they feel like their problems are only growing more complex.
Given these circumstances, I’d like to focus on the work of British leadership scholar Keith Grint (2005, 2010) in this address. He has proposed a theory of leadership associated with wicked problems that is particularly illuminating given the ethical challenges we face in society today. I use his theory to try to instill a better understanding of the communication and ethical challenges of leadership in these complex times.
Commanders, managers, and leaders
Grint’s (2005, 2010) theorizing begins with a simple-enough distinction between “commanders,” “managers,” and “leaders.” The latter two might already be familiar because neo-charisma discourses of the latter 20th century have defined “leaders” as essentially agents of change and “managers” as the implementers of such change (Bryman, 1992; Kotter, 1990). Grint retained this distinction but added “commanders” to the list and linked all three styles to the types of problems they face.
For example, “commanders” usually deal with crises where the problems are often self-evident, and there is little time for decision making. To take a simple example, a city or state leader in the midst of a natural disaster understands quite well that coordinating disaster relief is an immediate priority. “Commanders” are expected to have the answers to critical problems, and elected leaders
CONTACT Gail T. Fairhurst firstname.lastname@example.org Department of Communication, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH 45221-1084. 1http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GAC_GlobalAgendaOutlook_2014.pdf © 2016 Taylor & Francis
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who do not have those answers may suffer in popularity in the next election cycle. This is what happened to U.S. Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco who, in media accounts after Hurricane Katrina, looked almost shell-shocked as if she herself had been swept away by the rising tides (Fairhurst & Cooren, 2009). Disaster relief in the days following Katrina was itself disastrous, and shortly thereafter she announced she would not run for office again.
By contrast, the kinds of problems that “managers” deal with are tame (Rittel & Webber, 1973), which means that there is less novelty and uncertainty involved. Typically, managers may have seen the type of problem before, so they become specialists in understanding how to solve such problems; they’ll break it down into more manageable parts or create a process to solve it. For example, most entry-level supervisory positions in organizations are “managerial” because the problems are rela- tively well defined (e.g., setting production goals for work teams, managing resources, etc.). However, it is important to acknowledge that tame problems aren’t necessarily all that simple; they can be very complex, yet potentially solvable. To return to our example, managers can face a severe decline in their resources due to an environmental restraint or budget cutbacks, yet their problems are still tame even if it’s difficult to figure a way out of their circumstances.
Finally, “leaders” distinguish themselves based upon the high degree of novelty and uncertainty they face. The problems that they deal with are wicked—recall that means intractable, more than just a little complicated. These problems appear to have no stopping point, such as nation building in many Third World countries (e.g., Afghanistan), reforming U.S. healthcare, solving global poverty, and so on. No one individual can have the answers to the myriad challenges involved in problems like these; therefore, leaders must gather collaborators and pose the right questions to them to set them on a proper course. For example, take the issue of climate change, a problem of wicked proportions. President Barack Obama made climate change a priority for his second administration, embracing a multipronged approach, including hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as “frack- ing”). Yet he has also been wary of its potential risks, including the release of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Consider the account given in a recent Washington Post article reported on by Juliet Eilperin (2014) in which President Obama posed key questions to his team:
When the subject of natural gas came up during a Nov. 30, 2012, meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Obama turned to Holdren (John P. Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology) and his deputy assistant for energy and climate change, Heather Zichal. “Do we have an accurate accounting of methane emissions, and do we have a problem there?” Zichal recalled the president asking. The White House announced a new methane strategy — which will include additional federal regulations — in March. (para. 16)
Obviously, Obama has a great deal more on his plate than climate change. Yet it is vitally necessary that he know enough about climate change issues, generally, and fracking and greenhouse gasses like methane, specifically, to pose key questions to his people who themselves are policy experts working with climate experts to formulate a sustainable policy for the Obama administration. This, in turn, deeply affects his administration’s credibility and negotiations worldwide with other countries with climate change policies that may seemingly be nonexistent or in their nascent stages (e.g., China or India).
When leaders are successful at forging the right collaborations to deal with the complexity of the problems, it is also true that collaborators may, at times, feel as though they have done the “real work” and thus diminish the contributions of the leaders who set all of this into motion. Grint (2005) called this the “irony of leadership” and argued that it may lessen the motivation of leaders to engage as a result. Of interest, the “irony of leadership” is not Grint’s most important insight here.
Stacking the deck?
One might be tempted to see Grint’s framework as a prescriptive typology for a business book or Harvard Business Review article: Commanders (should) have the answers to deal with crises, managers (should) have the processes in place to solve tame problems, and leaders (should) forge
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the necessary collaborations to address wicked problems. However, Grint’s key contribution here is recognizing that how commanders, managers, and leaders pose or “set” their problems often legitimizes the deployment of the particular form of authority they prefer. In other words, the problem prefigures the solution.
This insight has its origins in the work Don Schön (1983), who wrote an influential book titled The Reflective Practitioner: How Professional Think in Action. Schön essentially rejected problems as objective “givens” with rational problem solving to follow. Instead, he developed the notion of problem setting, which he defined as “a process in which, interactively, we name the things to which we will attend and frame the context in which we will attend to them” (p. 40). Thus, potentially problematic situations do not become problems until framed as such. So viewed, the problem is a negotiated, sometimes contested, construction. In such constructions, organizational members choose those aspects of the context to highlight and those aspects they will ignore; in simpler terms, it’s the linguistic version of rearranging the furniture. So when practitioners set problems, they impose a frame on the problem as to its boundaries and manageability (Schön, 1983, p. 63).
Similarly, Grint (2000, 2005) linked problem types to authority styles using historical methods to show how problem types were neither discovered nor self-evident but constructed to justify one’s style of authority. It is here that ethical issues become quite apparent because there is nothing to prevent so-called commanders, managers, and leaders from using their powers of persuasion to set problems in ways that justify their own self-interests rather than that of the common good. They might not even be aware that they do this if you have you ever heard the expression, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
However, Grint (2005) would probably argue that the leaders he studies appear quite aware of their communications. For example, he wrote that subsequent to the September 11, 2001, attacks on theWorld Trade Center, former U.S. president George W. Bush strategically portrayed the issue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s (presumed) weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) as a crisis. Bush was a “comman- der” in search of a “crisis,” perhaps due to some frustration with an inability to invade a highly elusive network like Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The Bush–Cheney (i.e., Vice President Dick Cheney) reasoning at the time was that Saddam Hussein could possibly be tied to the Al Qaeda network. Therefore, it was in the best interest of the United States and its citizens in a post-9/11 era to invade Iraq in order to stop the WMD “crisis” from occurring.
The rest, as they say, is history. The United States successfully invaded Iraq. It rid the world of Saddam Hussein and his sons, yet no WMDs were ever found. Unfortunately, the United States was unprepared for the war in Iraq that would soon follow, including the loss of thousands Iraqi, American, and allied lives and staggering economic costs associated with the war and nation- building efforts. (Recall that there was a parallel presence in Afghanistan at the time as well.) If the WMD issue wasn’t a true crisis, surely the ensuing war created one.
The Roman Catholic Church supplies us with a more recent example of “commanders” in search of a “crisis.” It involves the Church’s treatment of a group of American nuns demanding a greater voice in Church affairs. One of them, Sister Pat Farrell of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, represents about 80% of the 57,000 Catholic nuns in the United States. This group was recently rebuked by the Church for publicly disagreeing with Catholic archbishops and for not vigorously promoting the Church’s position on same-sex marriage, abortion, and male-only priest- hood. Some members of Sr. Farrell’s group are on record endorsing the ordination of women priests.
Another outspoken nun and attorney, Sr. Simone Farrell, endorsed President Obama’s universal healthcare initiative, contrary to the American bishops who came out against it for fear it would cover abortion. Sr. Farrell’s group, NETWORK (a group of Catholic social activists associated with “Nuns on the Bus”), does not promote or condone abortion, they say, but they do endorse universal healthcare. Noting that the bill contained no federal funding of abortion, Sr. Simone got many nuns to sign a public letter of support and campaign for the bill, which also angered the clergy.
The Vatican, under then Pope Benedict, subsequently accused the nuns of undermining the Church by espousing “radical feminist themes” incompatible with the Church’s teachings. The nuns,
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however, said they were simply seeking a place of equality in the Church. New York Times writer Laurie Goodstein (2012, p. 13) suggested that this conflict had been brewing for a while because there were “questions of obedience and autonomy, what it means to be a faithful Catholic and different understandings of the Second Vatican Council.”
It was this issue and the new papacy of Pope Francis in 2013 that brought it to the attention of the CBS News program 60 Minutes (Metz & Simon, 2014). Host Bob Simon interviewed Sr. Farrell and Sr. Simone, among other nuns, as well as Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, who was the clergyman appointed by Pope Benedict to rein in the nuns and bring them into compliance. The archbishop characterized the Church’s issues with the American nuns as nothing short of a “crisis.” Note Mr. Simon’s challenge to the archbishop:
Bob Simon: I can understand that it’s problematic for the church, but you’ve called it a crisis. A bit hyperbolic?
Fr. Sartain: I don’t think so. And the reason I don’t think so is because there comes to be a point at which we have to get a handle on this so that it doesn’t continue to evolve into something much more problematic …
Bob Simon: You don’t think that the timing is a bit off that when the church is really under condemnation for the pedophile scandal and the cover-up?
Correspondent Simon could have also mentioned the charges of money laundering leveled against the Vatican Bank, much needed reform of the notoriously intransigent Roman Curia, and a host of other problems that would surely qualify as “wicked,” a “crisis,” or both. However, labeling the problem with the nuns as a “crisis” justifies the preferred authority style of the archbishop and the Vatican—that of “commanders” with complete veto power over the sisters’ publications, programs, and speakers. Archbishop Sartain, as Rome’s proxy, now has the power of censorship by rendering the Catholic voices of these nuns utterly silent. A less extreme characterization of the problem would not justify such sweeping powers.
What do the nuns say? Of her group, Sr. Simone said, “We’re a staff of nine full-time people, and we make the Vatican nervous? Give me a break!” To be fair, though, we must ask whether Sr. Simone is engaging in a little persuasive problem setting herself in minimizing their newfound activism and outspokenness that, in turn, would diminish the need to take formal action.
Regardless of what side of the nuns’ debate one favors, we can conclude that setting the problem often prefigures the solution—and that such problem setting for people in authority, in particular, involves ethical choices. To recap, did the Bush administration reasonably believe that WMDs were in Iraq at the time, and did they have credible evidence to suggest a relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda? If so, depiction of a “crisis” appears legitimate. If not, it appears dishonest. Did the Vatican really believe that the problem with the American nuns had reached crisis propor- tions, or was this just another case of (their history of) preferring authoritarian solutions? Even a moral authority like the Catholic Church may appear disingenuous at times.
A question of ethics
Now let us complicate this discussion of ethics a bit more by throwing wicked problems into the mix. Recall that wicked problems are massively complex and cannot be solved by one person. Collaborations are necessary to deal with the complexities involved, but individual leaders can facilitate this process by asking the necessary questions to get collaborators moving in the right direction. Grint (2005) also talked about the “irony of leadership” in which leaders might not want to be the spark that ignites effective collaborations because they will be accorded very little credit for doing so.
There are, however, more serious ethical breaches associated with wicked problems than the “irony” problem. For example, it is certainly possible to honestly misjudge a “wicked” problem, not see its complexity, set the problem as “tame,” and thereby underestimate the difficulty of solving it. Youth and inexperience may be the reasons for this. But consider those situations where there is growing evidence that a problem is wicked. Ethical or not, the individuals in authority positions cite
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legal, financial, or other reasons not to act with an abundance of caution even though human health and safety may be involved.
That is exactly the situation that the National Football League (NFL) has been facing for some time. American football, known for 250- to 300-pound men blocking and tackling one another, is a physical game like few others. Twenty years ago, there was not the awareness that there is today that repeated hits to the head—chronic, repetitive brain trauma—can result in memory loss, depression, other psychological disorders, and for some, like former San Diego Chargers great Junior Seau, and former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson, suicide.
Late in 2013, the news program Frontline (Kirk, Gilmore, & Wiser, 2013) investigated the NFL’s treatment of the concussion problem in a documentary entitled League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. Unfortunately, it is a sad indictment of the NFL’s attempts, under commissioners Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell, to come to terms with the full scope of this problem. For several years, they steadfastly denied there was a problem, attacked messengers bearing bad news, and commissioned science and convened meetings that would produce findings favorable to the NFL. In short, for years it appears that they set the problem to justify ignoring it. As such, it is important to reflect for just a moment on how we as a society consider the Paul Tagliabues and Roger Goodells of this world to be effective stewards of their organizations largely because they and their representa- tives successfully persuade much of society to treat their “wicked problems” as “tame” or no problem at all. It appears to be yet another example of what Stan Deetz (1992) called the corporate colonization of our society whereby corporate interests, prevailing over all others, are made to seem natural and normal.
To continue on with the NFL’s handling of the concussions issue, in 2013 when the evidence was becoming irrefutable, they admitted there was a problem but responded as though it were manage- able or “tame.” For example, in August of that year, the NFL settled a landmark consolidated concussion lawsuit by agreeing to pay former players $765 million. Although this seems like a large amount and the league had agreed to institute more stringent rules designed to protect player health, $765 million was widely considered to be a drop in the bucket relative to what the NFL is worth, what projected settlement costs were going to be—and the paltry amounts that any individual player would receive (e.g., half of the money won’t be disbursed immediately, but over 17 years; Barnwell, 2013). Fortunately, a federal judge overturned the decision, believing that the agreement did not go far enough to cover every player who may need help.
Now the NFL is seeking to portray itself as in front of the curve on this issue by funding concussion research at several large universities, including the center and female doctor at Boston University whose work they tried for so long to discredit. They have also donated $45 million to USA Football to expand certification programs for coaches who would be taught safer ways to tackle.
However, is the issue of concussions a wicked problem? Is it a crisis as Frontline labeled it? Can it be both? Yes, yes, and yes! Recently, The New York Times labeled the NFL’s problem a paradox because “the more that the NFL spends to address safety problems, the more it is highlighting those problems, essentially worrying the audience that it is seeking to assure” (Shear & Belson, 2014, p. B12). Moreover, at least one of the lawyers representing players with traumatic brain injuries said that even though the NFL is donating tens of millions of dollars to study concussions, that does not mean that they are focused on public health. Their goal, he said, is to “control the public’s perception of concussion risks” through programs that attempt “to convince parents that football can be made safer,” even though there is no empirical evidence that concussions can be reduced through safer tackling procedures (Shear & Belson, 2014, p. B12).
Consider also the following from Frontline: First, the concussion issue appears systemic, starting with youth football leagues on up, such that by the time a player retires form the NFL, he may have had 30 years of repeated head trauma. Second, the system for reporting concussions is flawed. During the 2013 NFL preseason—this was after the $765 million settlement—the Frontline investi- gation found 40 instances of player concussion or head injuries reported on NFL team websites. However, because of a “gap” in how teams report injury data to the league, just 10 of those
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concussions appeared on the official NFL injury report for Week 1 of the season. Third, the gladiator-like culture of the game is predicated on a certain amount of sanctioned violence that cannot unequivocally rule out head trauma even with putatively “safe” tackles. Finally, there are questions as to whether the paying public actually wants the game to change.
So the issue here concerns the hard conversations that need to take place to prevent future injuries and deaths—including whether football should be played at all and at what levels. Currently, all 50 states have adopted “concussion laws,” which stipulate that players must be taken off the field and approved by a doctor before they are able to return. Some schools are also banning heading in soccer and reducing the number of full-contact practices. Will this be enough? Only time will tell.
Tackling wicked problems and points of passage
If one is not depressed enough at this juncture, considering the current political intransigence that dominatesWashington, DC, politics should do the trick! Labeled the “argument culture” (Tannen, 1998), today’s national political scene seems increasingly dominated by polarity and divisiveness. Sadly, this has become a wicked problem with both national and global consequences.
At one time, running for office and governance weren’t as married as they are today. In earlier times, governance required working with folks from “across the aisle” and brokering the best possible solutions to problems based on compromise and concession. It’s not that political interests were ignored—politicians have always been concerned with how things would play back in their home districts. But political interests didn’t dominate as they do nowadays. Today, most politicians feel as though they are perpetually running for office. They ignore, at their peril, polarizing media interests who propagate an “us against them,” “right against the forces of evil” mentality that interferes with governance—all the while these same media interests profit enormously as they commodify such rhetoric. To top it all off, we haven’t even added into the mix the increasingly wicked problems, such as the ones named in the introduction, with which our political leaders must contend.
However, there is a movement afoot in this country to restore civility to public discourse, the aim of which is to improve good governance. We can see it in blog posts and websites such as www. civilpolitics.org, the goal of which is to “educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides”; www.instituteforcivlity.org, which is “dedi- cated to reducing the polarization of our political and legislative processes by facilitating dialogue, teaching respect, and building civility in both the public and private spheres”; and www.peace andconflictpolitics.com, its goal, by originator and communication scholar Don Ellis, focusing on Israel and Middle East politics (particularly vis-à-vis U.S. interests) with a commitment to
the principle of a contestory democracy which privileges argument and interactional epistemology over blind commitment to ideology. In other words, communication generates knowledge and insight and is the only way to minimize the differences that separate people. If one is rigidly committed to an ideological position (e.g., conservative-liberal), and refuses to budge from this position, then they are behaving contrary to the demo- cratic process and more concerned with their own purity than problem-solving. (Ellis, 2011, para. 2)
In this “argument culture” of ours, in this age of immensely complex and wicked problems, there are folks willing to undertake the hard work of dialogue, discussion, and civil debate at the heart of a democratic society.
Over the past year, I have had the privilege of getting to know one such organization in Cincinnati, Ohio, called Beyond Civility: Communication for Effective Governance (www.beyondci vility.org). Begun with a kernel of an idea from the American Bar Association, the Beyond Civility project
addresses the challenge we face in trying to bridge the informational and ideological chasms that separate our leaders from each other and from their own diverse constituencies. It proposes antidotes to toxic language and
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styles of communication that obscure rather than clarify meaning, that repulse rather than invite under- standing, and that polarize rather than unify citizens. (Beyond Civility, n.d.-a, para. 3)
As founders and mediation-trained lawyers Bea Larsen and Robert Rack note on their website: “We may not be able to dictate how we feel, but we can choose how we communicate. The goal of this project is to identify our choices, and to advocate for those that build rather than divide our community” (Beyond Civility, n.d.-a, para. 4).
Their programs can be deceptively simple. For example, in Side-by-Side, two politicians from opposite parties come together with a moderator. Admission is free to the public, and the audience may participate at the end by posing questions. It is interesting that the moderator’s goal is not to spur debate but to question the politicians as to how they came to their positions. The moderator specifically avoids the toxic volleys found all over cable news as talking heads from opposite political camps interrupt, talk over, or jab one another to score points. Instead, the moderators skillfully maneuver the discussion to produce insight and understanding, not advantage and not anything the least bit sappy or staged, with questions such as When did you first take a personal interest in a particular politician? What did you believe their values to be? What propelled you into the political arena? Have you ever had a firm belief that then changed and caused you to turn in a different direction? Tell us the story.
In Back-to-Back, well-known advocates of opposing positions on important legal or public policy concerns (e.g., the death penalty) are similarly brought together with a moderator and an interested audience who may ask questions at the end. This time the moderator requests that each advocate step into the other’s shoes and “articulate as convincingly as possible the other side’s views on the issues. They must keep at it until the person on the other side says ‘I couldn’t have said it better myself.’” (Beyond Civility, n.d.-b, para. 2).
Just how are these “deceptively” simple exercises? Notice how both activities provide safe settings in which to suspend judgment temporarily in ways that promote listening to understand, not listening to one-up the other person. As a result, we can see the beginnings of relationship formation—and it’s not just the awkwardness of two people thrown together to face the glare of a community spotlight. Side-by- Sides and Back-to-Backs become the unobtrusive moral scaffolding for moving a relationship forward as opponents come to see the other with a genuine appreciation of their differences and, just perhaps, also discover areas of commonality or agreement to be built upon.
Certainly there’s nothing revolutionary about these kinds of events; it’s more about “small wins.” However, in an age when today’s political parties frequently go to great lengths to demonize an elected politician for even crossing the aisle, the Beyond Civility project is a very promising start because it challenges the increasingly taken-for-granted notion that blind adherence to conservative or liberal ideology is either natural or normal. Framing, listening, dialogue, and almost all other communication skills are often considered “soft skills,” but there’s nothing “soft” about challenging the construction of one social reality over another, especially when so much is at stake (Fairhurst, 2011). There is also nothing “soft” about recognizing that in order to collaborate to solve problems, individuals have to be heard and feel as though they’ve been heard. The Beyond Civility project has this figured out.
Therein lies the trickiness associated with the collaborations required to solve wicked problems. Each issue or type of problem will have its own points of passage, which are subissues, situations, or resources that must be strategically leveraged at certain times in order to move forward. In the case of the “argument culture,” getting people first to listen to one another is one obvious passage point. However, also revealed at Beyond Civility events is a second point of passage. To wit, even though Washington, DC, is gridlocked, the real action is what can be done at local levels—and so now we have a place (actually, an innumerable number of places) to begin the collaborations necessary to tackle the “argument culture.” Of course, there will be many more passage points for this complex issue in time to come, but restoring civility and a bottom-up strategy for change might just be among the most important. By the way, Beyond Civility also sponsors a Community Dialogue project,
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which aims to offer everyday citizens an opportunity to practice the listening and dialogue skills they are teaching to the politicians.
For one final insight about passage points for wicked problems, consider what Keith Grint has to say about our cultural orientations and resisting what he calls our “addiction to elegance.”
Culture and our addiction to elegance
In discussing wicked problems, Grint (2010) drew from the work of British anthropologist Mary Douglas (2003, 2008), who argued that most cultural orientations can be decided along two dimensions: “grid” and “group.” Grid refers to the structuring of a society, its orientation to rules and roles. For example, government bureaucracy is an example of a highly rules oriented culture, whereas an informal group that emerges around common interests likely has very few rules. By contrast, group refers to an individual’s position inside or outside a social group and to the importance ascribed to groups culturally. Independents, isolationists, or self-described “lone wolves” are examples of people with a low-group orientation, whereas communitarians would be an example of a high-group orientation. Following Douglas, we can define a culture by crossing these two dimensions. For example, in a high-group, high-grid orientation, hierarchies dominate. We find this in the military, where there is a strong orientation to rules and the group over any one individual. In a high-group, low-grid cultural orientation, egalitarian cultures emerge; they value coming together through meetings and efforts to reach consensus on issues. Individualist cultures likewise surface when there is a low-group, low-grid orientation. Libertarians, entrepreneurs, and survivalists are prototypical members here because they tend to be indifferent toward group membership and prefer few rules. Finally, fatalists have a low- group orientation and a high-grid orientation, although the latter takes a perverse form. Societal rules are perceived to be so strong that they undercut any effort to challenge them meaningfully, so fatalists basically throw in the towel.
Each cultural group can be said to have an addiction, fueled by their propensity to see the problems of society in a preferred (and internally consistent way; Grint, 2010). For example, hierarchists are addicted to command; society’s problems are the result of a lack of rules or strong leaders unafraid to use their authority. Egalitarians are addicted to collaborative leadership; problems arise because society is not coming together, reaching consensus, establishing solidarity, and so on. Individualists are addicted to individual initiative and the belief that all problems can be rendered tame. Finally, fatalists have given up; they are stuck in a malaise. Curbing our addiction to elegant solutions is thus one final passage point I’d like to consider. While the elegance of hierarchist, egalitarian, or individualist solutions may be readily apparent for tame problems or crises, they are unsuitable for wicked problems. As Grint (2010) explained,
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. (p. 23)
In short, wicked problems are forcing a rewriting of the rules on solving problems. It’s basically Ashby’s law of requite variety whereby complexity in the environment has to be matched with complexity in the system in order for the system to adapt to its environment. That’s why hierarchist, egalitarian, and individualist leaders alone cannot solve wicked problems. They must forge the right collaborations to match the complexity in their environments. They must also expect that when you bring individuals or groups together with different mental models for how the world works, solutions will be “clumsy”; lack elegance; and be marked by conflict, disarray, and progress that often feels like two steps forward, one step back. As Grint (2010)
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suggested, “This is not a ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach to guarantee a resolution but an experi- mental art form that may—or may not—work” (p. 26). Arguably, such problem solving to address wicked problems is not for the faint of heart. But given the world in which we live, what choice do we have?
In closing, I’d like to mention the recent book Conflict Between Persons: The Origins of Leadership by authors Ronald C. Arnett, Leeanne Bell McManus, and Amanda McKendree (2014). Throughout the book, the authors speak of the many ways that ethical disputes fuel conflict. What I love about the title of their book is the implicit recognition that conflict can be a constructive force in society from which individual and collective leadership can emerge. Looking at the problems we face in society today, never have we needed to understand this notion more.
Arnett, R., McManus, W., & McKendree, A. (2014). Conflict between persons: The origins of leadership. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.
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