The challenges the world faces today are particularly complex: They cross boundaries, lack win-win solutions, are dynamic and create uncertainty. But that doesn’t mean they’re intractable, sustainability experts R. Bruce Hull, David P. Robertson and Michael Mortimer report. Wicked problems demand an equally complex and strategic approach to finding solutions. From embracing shared leadership, to anticipating the future strategically, and learning to change course nimbly as circumstances change, the authors’ strategies and examples guide you toward a mind-set and skills for leading the way to a more just, sustainable society and planet.
- Society needs “wicked” leaders to navigate the Anthropocene – today’s geological era – successfully.
- The Anthropocene poses big challenges.
- The Anthropocene also offers opportunities.
- To make the most of this moment, leaders must focus on “direction, alignment and commitment.”
- Employ eight strategies to help stakeholders connect.
- Wicked leaders collaborate across differences.
- Wicked leaders adapt to change, uncertainty and failure.
- Wicked leadership can guide and inspire other leaders.
Society needs “wicked” leaders to navigate the Anthropocene – today’s geological era – successfully.
Human domination of the planet Earth, dramatic change and increased uncertainty characterize today’s geological era, the Anthropocene. In many ways, life is better than ever. But society faces severe problems, including climate change, tribal politics, resource scarcities, conflict, and huge changes in markets, cities and governance systems.
“Some of these changes, if they continue, will present existential challenges for human civilization.”
Problems come in four kinds.
- Tame – These problems are complex, but familiar. People know how to solve them.
- Crisis – These problems involve threats and uncertainty, and demand command-and-control leadership.
- Wicked – These dynamic problems cross boundaries, lack win-win solutions and create uncertainty.
- Super-wicked – These problems are slow-moving, bear immense uncertainty and threaten disastrous consequences. Those seeking solutions often cause these problems, which involve a range of stakeholders.
The wicked problems of the Anthropocene relate to climate change, war, water supply, food supply, urbanization, population changes, poverty, inequality, prosperity, biodiversity, energy and a linear economy. Solving them requires wicked leaders who can connect, collaborate and adapt. Such leaders work with global connections, take the long view, cope with conflict and handle unpredictability well.
Two descriptive narratives compete to describe today’s world. The “decline” narrative focuses on loss, while the “breakthrough” narrative focuses on change. People who embrace the breakthrough narrative and master wicked leadership skills can help create a brighter future.
The Anthropocene poses big challenges.
The first challenge is society’s perception that population growth is a problem. The ongoing demographic transition means that a lower birth rate will stabilize populations, resulting in fewer consumers, innovators and taxpayers, plus higher health costs.
Second, poverty is declining. This drives the demand for goods and services, accelerating environmental and social change.
“Prosperity, not population, is the key driver of the challenges we face in the coming decades and century.”
Third, rapid urbanization disrupts society and the environment, while boosting economic growth, reducing poverty, strengthening human rights and lowering the per capita environmental impact.
Fourth, food production harms Earth’s ecosystems. Increasing prosperity will exacerbate this problem as wealthier people consume more meat and more calories.
Fifth, human activities deplete the world’s groundwater supplies. Although water use is declining in some cities, the overall use of water is increasing, and climate change alters its availability. This poses risks to businesses and society because shortages spur political conflict.
Sixth is humankind’s demand for abundant, affordable energy. The fossil fuel industry has reduced some of its harmful environmental impact, but it has created other effects, including climate change – which alone portends serious trouble if humans do not mitigate it.
Seventh, the world’s economy is linear. It moves materials from production to consumption to disposal, depleting natural resources along the way. As consumption grows, shifting to a circular economy could allay resource constraints while providing incredible economic opportunities.
“Navigating the challenges of the Anthropocene requires both strong leadership from above, as well as shared leadership from below, the middle, outside-in and inside-out.”
As the economic gap between rich and poor countries shrinks, the income gap within countries grows. This leads to reduced economic growth and productivity, destabilizes societies and disempowers disadvantaged people.
The Anthropocene also offers opportunities.
These changes and challenges create opportunities for leaders who hope to shape a more sustainable world, particularly at the intersection of business, the public sector and nongovernmental sectors.
Sustainability is a growing aspect of core business strategies. Efforts to reduce environmental and social risks that relate to climate change, water supplies and other challenges influence every facet of commerce – purchasing, investment, recruitment, retention, corporate social responsibility, supply chain management and product development.
“Increasingly, the wicked situations of the Anthropocene require…multi-stakeholder, cross-sector engagements to address concerns that are not the domain or responsibility of any one organization or sector.”
Institutional buyers increasingly demand sustainable products. Investors consider sustainability more often when choosing investments. And increasingly, sustainability factors into job satisfaction.
Growing recognition of resource limitation and new opportunities to create value point toward a circular economy. This includes designing products that enable manufacturers to reuse components, sharing rather than owning, and focusing on services rather than products.
“Cities are becoming the most innovative and powerful institutions capable of illuminating governance paths forward at a global scale.”
Collaboration among the private sector, government and nonprofits can enrich resources, lower costs, enhance nimbleness and reduce friction. However, it poses challenges, including reduced transparency, accountability and permanence.
Urbanization reduces poverty and creates wellsprings of talent and political will. By sharing lessons and collaborating, cities can reinforce other cities’ strengths.
To make the most of this moment, leaders must focus on “direction, alignment and commitment.”
Addressing wicked challenges requires shared leadership. Everyone involved must facilitate direction, alignment and commitment.
Direction involves agreeing on goals. Clear objectives will emerge and strengthen as stakeholders work together. This will evolve as conditions change. Alignment means coordinating efforts to achieve goals. Like direction, it changes as circumstances evolve. Commitment means keeping shared goals front and center, and requires ongoing monitoring and effort.
“Addressing local and global sustainability issues is increasingly expected as part of a corporation’s social license to operate.”
Wicked problems connect players, risks and impacts across space, time and cultures. Wicked problems demand that stakeholders collaborate despite their differences. This may mean compromising, making hard choices, or modifying values or behaviors. Because wicked problems have high uncertainty and stakeholders are fickle, leaders must continually adapt to changing circumstances.
Employ eight strategies to help stakeholders connect.
Wicked leadership requires strategically connecting stakeholders by using these strategies:
- Accountability – Practices that boost holding specific entitles responsible ensure the required outcomes even when participants are distant from each other. These include labeling, certification, standards and reporting.
- Storytelling – Tell stories to help diverse players develop, understand and embrace shared goals. Councils, websites, professional organizations and learning networks can facilitate this process, which will bring more supporters on board.
- Communities of practice and learning – Cultivate shared learning and best practices to reduce redundancy and boost innovation.
- “Train-the-trainer” – These initiatives create a cascade of learning. Choose the right trainers, train them, and monitor for quality training and results.
- Scaling up – Use partnerships to build your initiatives. Innovating and scaling take different skills, so engage the right people for each.
- Diffusion – Have your stakeholders share innovation. To work well, the innovation must have a clear advantage, align with existing systems, be simple, testable and show tangible benefits. Strategies for spreading innovations vary depending on whether the adopter is eager or reluctant.
- Collective impact – Bring your stakeholders together to engage the power of synergy. This requires a trusted process, support, and shared agendas and activities.
- Social marketing – Take a comprehensive approach to changing behaviors that includes removing barriers, obtaining commitment and providing incentives.
Wicked leaders collaborate across differences.
Leaders must get people to work together despite differences that have a basis in confirmation bias, identity-protective reasoning, filter bubbles or echo chambers. To accomplish this, pick your battles.
“Meaningful impact requires coordination of numerous stakeholders… for a long time.”
Focus on engaging the most willing and able collaborators rather than trying to get and keep everyone on board. Use facts carefully and in context, and convey them with visuals. Tap identity as a tool to advance direction, alignment and commitment. Cultivate group identity, affirm each participant’s self-worth, vest in “yes-and” thinking, minimize identity conflict and manage the story.
To navigate differences, understand and explain yourself, respect and empathize with others, and prioritize human concerns over political positions.
Wicked leaders adapt to change, uncertainty and failure.
Multiple strategies can help leaders excel in the face of the change and uncertainty that characterize the Anthropocene.
“Rather than design fail-safe solutions, stakeholders should design for safe failure.”
These tactics include:
- “Sensemaking”– This clarification step helps overcome analysis paralysis. At the same time, it acts deliberately by iteratively analyzing stakeholders, identifying strategies, reaching an understanding of systems and identifying outcomes.
- Learning by doing – This involves taking action, absorbing the lessons you learn from the consequences and then adjusting your future actions accordingly. This strategy accepts failure as a given and as an opportunity to improve strategies, set better goals and improve learning.
- Collaborative innovation – Bring diverse stakeholders together. It helps them understand a situation and the changes it calls for, and apply those findings in an iterative way, using lessons they learned to enhance outcomes.
- “Striving for resiliency” – Aiming for resilience rather than efficiency enables you to endure through changing circumstances and to take advantage of emergent properties. It might include building in redundancy, keeping your options open and diversifying.
- Scenario planning – Assess existing drivers of change, apply different sets of assumptions to create various imagined futures and compare those imagined futures to guide collaborative action toward desired outcomes.
- “Being disruptive” – Disruption emerges from comparing the current situation with a desired future. Seeing this stark contrast can give stakeholders a compelling incentive for critically examining the situation and embracing change.
- Sharing lessons – Taking this step will help sustain goal achievement, alignment and commitment.
Wicked leadership means motivating people to adapt, helping others see the challenges, assembling resources and trying to make change work.
Wicked leadership can guide and inspire other leaders.
Consider these inspiring examples of wicked leadership principles and practices in action:
- Arlin Wasserman, founder of Changing Tastes, promotes sustainable food practices. He illustrates the use of “identity management,” as well as editing your choices to engage influencers and alter behavior.
- The Jal Bhagirathi Foundation applies principles of direction, alignment, commitment and train-the-trainer practices to help villages in northwestern India improve their water security.
- In Arlington, Virginia, government leaders brought together diverse stakeholders to create and carry out a community energy plan featuring collective impact, accountability, trust and lesson sharing.
- Green America, a nonprofit organization, employed collaborative innovation, sensemaking and stakeholder engagement to develop and deploy six novel initiatives for enriching the soil while sequestering carbon.
- The luxury firm Host Hotels enhanced its sustainability and appeal by applying the principle of accountability. It worked with the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board to quantify the impacts of practices that aimed at reducing its environmental footprint.
- The Fire Learning Network, which develops and advances new approaches to fire management, built institutional trust by bringing professionals from 650 organizations together into a single community of practice.
- Accountability, continuous communication, learning by doing, innovation and lesson sharing helped governments, businesses and nonprofits form partnerships to protect Chesapeake Bay’s water quality, by deploying elements of green infrastructure in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Society can’t solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s tools.
“If you want someone to collaborate with you, you’ll need to see things from their perspective, and you’ll want them to do to the same for you.”
By embracing connection, collaboration and adaptation, wicked leaders can forge the way to a brighter, more sustainable future.
About the Authors
R. Bruce Hull, David P. Robertson and Michael Mortimer are senior fellows with Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability.
The book is a guide for developing leadership skills that can help address complex and uncertain environmental and social challenges, also known as wicked problems. The authors are experts in the fields of psychology, management, and sustainability who have extensive experience in teaching, consulting, and researching on leadership and wicked problems. They define wicked problems as those that are difficult to define, have multiple causes and stakeholders, involve trade-offs and uncertainties, and require collective action and learning.
The book consists of four parts: Part 1 provides a roadmap of the challenges and opportunities of the Anthropocene, the current era of human-dominated global change; Part 2 introduces a toolbox of wicked leadership skills, based on the principles of systems thinking, connecting, collaborating, and adapting; Part 3 presents a storybook of people practicing wicked leadership in various contexts, such as food, water, energy, climate, accounting, and fire management; and Part 4 offers some concluding remarks and suggestions for further learning.
The book covers various topics, such as:
- How to understand the nature and scope of the wicked problems of the Anthropocene, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, social inequality, and global health
- How to develop the skills and mindsets of leadership for sustainability, such as connecting across space and time, collaborating across differences, and adapting to change and failure
- How to apply the principles and practices of leadership for sustainability to various domains and situations, such as food systems, energy systems, water systems, accounting systems, fire management, and community development
- How to foster a culture of innovation and responsibility in your team or organization that supports leadership for sustainability
The book aims to help readers develop a holistic understanding of how to lead from where they are by applying leadership principles and practices to a wide range of wicked situations. The book also provides practical exercises, case studies, examples, tips, tools, and resources to help readers assess their current level of leadership skills and implement the strategies to improve them.
The book is a valuable and insightful resource for anyone who wants to improve their leadership skills for sustainability and wicked problems. The authors write in a clear and engaging style that makes the book easy to read and understand. The book is well-organized and structured into four parts that cover the theory and practice of wicked leadership in a logical and coherent way.
The book is based on solid scientific evidence and draws from various disciplines such as psychology, neuroscience, behavioral science, management, and sustainability. The authors also share their own personal and professional experiences as well as stories from their clients and students. The book is full of practical exercises that help readers assess their current level of leadership skills and implement the strategies to improve them. The book also offers useful tools such as worksheets, checklists, quizzes, and templates that can be downloaded from the authors’ website.
The book is relevant and timely for the current situation of the world that is facing unprecedented challenges and uncertainties. The book offers hope and guidance for anyone who wants to cope better with change and stress and achieve their goals and potential. The book is suitable for anyone who wants to enhance their personal or professional performance, wellbeing, or leadership skills. The book is also ideal for coaches, trainers, educators, managers, or leaders who want to help others develop leadership skills for sustainability and wicked problems.
Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn how to lead effectively in the era of wicked problems. The book is informative, inspiring, practical, and empowering. It will help you transform your mindset and behavior and achieve more success and happiness in your life.