The search for clumsy leaders


  • Social brain

Over the Jubilee weekend I wrote a marathon post on cultural theory (CT) and ‘wicked’ issues. CT advocates ‘clumsy solutions’ involving the three active rationalities of hierarchy, egalitarianism, and individualism (as well as recognising the fourth, passive, rationality of fatalism).

Amazingly, a couple of people managed to wade through it including Fiona Beddoes-Jones who sent me a link to a paper by Professor Keith Grint on exactly the same topic.

A particularly valuable part of the paper is an exploration of which dimensions within each frame of rationality must be accentuated in order to maximise the scope for clumsy solutions to wicked problems. This chimes with my own interest. My suggestion is that increasing our collective power to solve problems involves concretely examining the problematic contemporary aspect of each rationality, so that by each approach being at its best we can achieve better clumsy composite solutions. However skilfully we cook a stew, we still rely on the quality of the original ingredients.

As I said in the long post, the idea that hierarchical power is under threat has become a commonplace with different accounts of this threat ranging from social theorists (e.g. Habermas) to new technology gurus (e.g. Shirky). The apparently ever growing public scepticism towards democratic leaders is just one particularly noticeable manifestation of a crisis in top down efficacy and bottom up legitimacy. Yet hierarchy continues to exist and we continue to need it to be part of the solution to problems, including the wicked ones.

Professor Grint suggests wicked issues have a strong normative dimension, in other words they involve not just the use of direct power but persuading people to behave in different ways in pursuit of shared goals. To affect normative change he suggests hierarchical leadership needs to be about ‘questions not answers’, about ‘relationships not structures’ and ‘reflection not reaction’.

This implies a link between idea of human development and normative leadership, a theme taken up in this paper by Thomas Jordan.

Leaders who can be part of developing clumsy solutions to wicked problems are likely to have reached an advanced level of awareness not just of the tasks, context and stakeholders but of themselves and – crucially – of the perspectives of others using different frames of rationality.

But lest this seem merely like an elitist’s call for a new generation of enlightened leaders it is important to recognise that leadership is also about followership. In the following quotation Grint sums up neatly why it is tough for politicians to offer normative leadership (the example of global terrorism could be replaced by any wicked problem)

….the more decision-makers constitute the problem as Wicked and interpret their power as essentially Normative, the more difficult their task becomes, especially with cultures that associate leadership with the effective and efficient resolution of problems. In other words, a democratic contender seeking election on the basis of approaching the problem of global terrorism as a Wicked Problem – that requires long term and collaborative leadership processes with no easy solutions, and where everyone must participate and share the responsibility – might consider this a very problematic approach because they may be less likely to be elected. 

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