As the US presidential polling day looms closer, one of the central questions of the moment is whether Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have what it takes to lead the most powerful democracy on Earth.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the televised leadership debates are unlikely to provide much insight into each contender’s capacity for governance. To be sure, in every session the presidential candidates will be put through their paces and pressed hard to clarify their position on different issues, whether it be combating nuclear proliferation in Iran, driving forward economic recovery and jobs growth back home or getting to grips with the mammoth task of delivering affordable healthcare to millions.
Yet for all the questions and interrogation, it is very much doubtful whether viewers and the wider electorate will be left any the wiser as to their leadership abilities. This is in part because the debates are based upon a defunct belief that leaders should be all-knowing individuals who have all the answers to our biggest problems. As is clear from the work of academics like Keith Grint, in a world of complex (not just complicated) ‘wicked’ problems, this is a fantasy narrative that can only set them up for disappointment and the rest of us for disillusionment.
Wicked problems, whether climate change, global development or healthcare reform, cannot be met with easy answers but rather with ‘clumsy responses’ delivered through a different kind of leadership – one that is more humble, considered and thoughtful. In his recent annual lecture, Matthew Taylor indicated that such a model of governance relies on at least three things: asking questions not just giving patchwork answers; nurturing relationships not just building structures; and reflecting on problems not just reacting instantly to them.
Therefore in determining a Presidential candidate’s readiness for office - or the capacity of any leader for that matter - it may prove more beneficial to focus on the extent to which they stack up against these broader principles of ‘clumsiness’, rather than on whether they can reel off half-baked answers to mammoth, complex issues.
The principles outlined in Keith Grint’s paper, Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions, give us a sense of what these guiding maxims might look like:
Relationships not Structures – Understanding that the ability to wield power and effect change is based more upon a leader’s relationship with his/her followers and their interactions with one another, than on the structure in which they work. A regular failure to understand this rule is one reason why the various efforts to restructure the NHS have proven fruitless.
Reflection not Reaction – Acknowledging that decisiveness is only warranted during moments of crisis or when a problem is simple to solve. Dealing with Wicked problems, on the other hand, requires greater contemplation and “a proactive philosophical assessment of the situation.”
Positive Deviance not Negative Acquiescence – Encouraging people (‘followers’) to experiment and test different responses to problems on their own, as opposed to directing them to follow the dominant culture. Grint cites the example of a Save the Children study in Vietnam, which showed that the mothers of well-nourished children during a famine were deviating from social norms and spreading good behaviour on their own.
Negative Capability – Being able to remain comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. Related to the principle of Reflection not Reaction, this requires leaders to take their time with problems and to impose “a framework of understanding upon a literally senseless world.”
Constructive Dissent not Destructive Consent – Understanding that the ability to solve problems is greatly improved when there exists constructive criticism among followers, not mindless consent from ‘yes men’. Leaders therefore need to create a culture where others feel they can challenge them freely.
Collective Intelligence not Individual Genius – Acknowledging that the success or failure of endeavours cannot be reduced to the efforts of a single individual leader. It is a simple truth but one that is easily forgotten, both by followers and by leaders.
Community of Fate not a Fatalist Community – Being able to generate a feeling among followers that theirs is a shared fate and that more can be achieved in unison. Attempting and failing to address issues individually can often lead to a destructive fatalism which spreads throughout the whole population. Grint uses the example of a community leader in Leicester, who, upon recognising that fear prevented a disparate group of residents from combating a local gang problem, rallied everybody together to confront the issue as a large group.
Empathy not Egotism – Understanding that effective leadership requires regularly stepping into the shoes of your followers to understand how problems manifest themselves at a grass-roots level. This can often be achieved by becoming “an anthropologist of your own organisation” (e.g. Chief Constables who go out on the beat with their police officers).