By Andrew Green & Kevin McDermott
[reprinted from Medium.com Feb 7, 2020]
Some days it feels like we’re living through an era in which every problem is a problem from hell—unprecedented, monstrously large, ramifying wildly, with no obvious solution. For such an age our ideals of leadership are a bad fit.
Problems from hell can’t be put in a box. Consider the wildfires in California and Australia these past six months—problems from hell not simply because of their destructiveness but because they’re climate related. You can put the fires out. Putting out their cause is a lot more complicated.
A characteristic of problems from hell—climate change, refugee migration, broken capitalism—is that solving them requires challenging entrenched positions, the knottiest of problems for leadership.
It is hard leading people past agendas that protect systems that have worked well for a long time. Systems only work under a stable set of circumstances. Under the stress of wicked problems systems fall apart. And yet the response is to dig deeper into established positions by trying to “fix” them.
In response to unfamiliar conditions the human reaction is to proceed by analogy. Our brains default to the familiar—solutions that used to work—even if what’s familiar is unsuited to the new complexity.
So what sort of leadership is best suited to problems from hell?
Everyone’s pain acknowledged
Bookshelves groan with advice on the leadership traits (psst: male) we’ve been taught to admire: command, control, impatience for results. For putting out fires that style works. Putting out the causes of fires maybe not so much.
Leadership for an age of wicked problems is not the opposite of forcefulness. Wielding formal authority still counts. But formal authority only makes itself felt against a wicked problem if a leader sees the entire problem set and begins to think systemically about it.
Problems from hell need multiple solutions. That means multiple players. A strong leader gives all the players their voice. Everyone’s interest, everyone’s pain must be acknowledged. The idea is not to knock heads but to give hope.
Solutions to problems from hell require renegotiation of established systems. That means modifying expectations, which will probably mean relaxing positions on long-held agendas. It’s also the best chance of an outcome that leaves all parties in proximity to a satisfactory position.
Consider the California fires. Everyone involved has an agenda that, to them, makes sense. Pacific Gas & Electric has limited budget for making power lines safer, making it reluctant to take on the cost of burying power lines in high-risk areas. Homeowners need insurance but insurance companies want premiums appropriate to their risk. Without actuarial tables for pricing unprecedented conditions their default is too price high.
Problem from hell.
The solution might mean making insurance available with minimal rate increases in exchange for stricter building codes and burying the most at-risk power lines. The state might provide some subsidies in support of a public good. All assume more risk. All get what they want: a reestablished equilibrium and a promise of stability.
The logic of hope
In 2019 air traffic from Swedish airports dropped 9 percent. Across the rest of Europe it was up 10 percent. A variety of explanations were suggested, including the “flight shame” movement meant to heighten awareness of the large carbon footprint left by airliners. Lacking data to challenge that correlation we simply stipulate that public shame and private guilt are bad motivators. Over the long term, who signs up for pain?
Offering a vision of a sub-optimized future is not a potent style of leadership. Painting a believable picture that gets people off their personal agendas by showing them the meaning of change for themselves is a core competency of leadership in an age of wicked problems. Solving problems from hell is about being realistic, not virtuous.
What if the pursuit of carbon-neutral flying offers an overall greater benefit than flight shame to the earth’s atmosphere, as Jet Blue claims it wants to do in the United States? In the near term the cost of an airline ticket might be higher. But it might spur innovation that eventually transforms aircraft design to deliver what we all want: reduced greenhouse gases.
In the face of wicked problems people—the public, a company’s employees—want to be spoken to as adults. When that’s not happening people always know. They want leaders who explain the risks and credibly explain the options. Imagine if every analyst call was like that. It would be a revolution.
Even in this age of abiding mistrust we are looking for a vision that addresses multiple agendas, is fact-based and realistic. We want to know the logic of hope.
In some ways transformative leadership is simpler when the world is on fire, metaphorically and otherwise. In the fight against fascism, for instance, Churchill and Roosevelt rallied frightened people by making them believe they were the equal of anything, and so they were.
The leader’s job is harder when the emergency is over the horizon—acknowledged but still a challenge for another day. Someone else’s problem from hell.
Think of it as the difference between the Marshall Plan and the Treaty of Versailles. Which created the more enduring models of leadership?
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