How to Lead in the Era of Wicked Problems

Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems / Island Press

By Susan Apollonio

If, like me, over the course of 2020 you’ve had thoughts like there has to be a better way or what the world needs now are better leaders, then Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems may just be the book you need to prepare for 2021 and beyond. Written for professionals working in sustainability and environmental security, the new book by authors R. Bruce Hull, David P. Robertson, and Michael Mortimer provides a roadmap of the challenges and opportunities of the Anthropocene, a leadership toolbox, and a storybook of wicked leadership in practice. This practical guide provides clear leadership strategies that support emerging and seasoned planning and design professionals alike.

Roadmap for the Anthropocene

Humanity is just 70 years into the Anthropocene, the age where “humans create Earth’s conditions that support or threaten civilization.” In our new epoch, the problems we have created and need to solve are “wicked.”

Wicked problems — climate change, inequality, urbanization, water scarcity, agriculture, energy, and the linear economy — are “extraordinarily difficult to define and even more difficult to solve.” Wicked problems are polarizing; exist across interconnected systems; span cultures, borders, institutions, governments, and markets; and “no one organization or sector of society can know in advance how to solve” them. Throughout these systems are people who adhere to diverse beliefs and whose values are often not in alignment with our own. How do we establish trust, facilitate meaningful communication, and hold space for the beautiful natural diversity that exists in our world to create a sustainable future? With leadership strategies for sustainability, of course.

For readers looking for an entry point that relates to their personal interests or area of professional focus, you may wish to start with a quick review of the “Introducing Leadership Stories” section. Specifically, the Navigating the Leadership Stories table, which maps Anthropocene challenges (stormwater, biodiversity, urbanization etc.) to the key actors and the leadership practices illustrated in the respective case study, while also referring to where in the toolbox the practice is explained.

Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems / Island Press

Toolbox for Wicked Leadership

Wicked problems require leadership that empowers everyone to “lead from where you are,” regardless of title or recognized authority. To provide context, Hull and his co-authors unpack the necessary leadership practices required in wicked situations as compared to what is required in tame and crisis situations.

Leadership for wicked problems is defined by the concepts of “direction, alignment, and commitment,” which occurs only when “stakeholders agree on a direction for their efforts, align their resources as needed to achieve that direction, and commit to delivering those resources as well as supporting each other.”

Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems / Island Press

A key point here is that everyone is responsible for achieving direction, alignment, and commitment. What makes this approach such a powerful tool is that it is clear, can be applied broadly, and it “works in most cultures, contexts, and situations,” as the case studies section demonstrates.

At this point in the book, the authors begin to illuminate a better way and introduce readers to leadership practices, which support professionals to “connect across space and time, collaborate across differences, and adapt to uncertainty” when problems are wicked. Caution is noted here: professionals need to understand that these practices must be used appropriately for the given set of circumstances.

To that end, specific strategies are detailed, which serve as a guide to achieving self and situational awareness, so that appropriate action plans can be implemented. For example, to connect across space and time leaders might establish a “community of practice,” so that “professionals can learn from each other and become more effective in their respective practices.”

In this reviewer’s opinion, the section on collaborating across differences is perhaps the most valuable because it provides strategies for navigating what often blocks individuals and groups from successful outcomes — our differences. How do we collaborate when people “hold different identities, agendas, factual beliefs, world views and values?”

The first step is self-awareness and requires understanding our individual preferences, values, influencing style, and approach to dealing with conflict, all of which evolve over time. With this awareness we can better communicate who we are, develop greater capacity for empathy and respect for difference. In turn, increased self-awareness better prepares us for the practices of adaptive leadership.

The chapter on “Adapting to Change, Uncertainty, and Failure” delves into achieving direction, alignment and commitment, when “situations are characterized by confounding uncertainty and dynamism.” Readers are introduced to a powerful sense-making tool, and strategies for collaborative innovation specific to sustainability.

Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems / Island Press

Storybook: People Practicing Wicked Leadership

In the final section of Leadership for Sustainability, we meet the people in the field who have successfully implemented the leadership practices for achieving direction, alignment, and commitment — by leading from where they are to find solutions to the greatest challenges of our time. It is through their stories that we find our own opportunities and inspiration to make new connections, collaborate, and adapt our way to a better future. Thank goodness we now have a new set of tools that we can customize for the task.

Susan Apollonio is a leadership coach who writes from Phoenix, Arizona. She partners with natural resources and design professionals to develop their leadership presence for professional and personal success.

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