Samuel Wilson

As I noted in an earlier post, it is often best to sneak up on generalities via particularities, rather than tackle them head-on.

Applied to leadership for the greater good, this means that it is prudent to consider the variety of ways in which the good is manifest rather than attempt to measure the good as an abstract unity.

For example, every society has public goods (e.g., roads, public broadcasting) and common goods (e.g., water, fossil fuels) that can be used by all of its citizens, as well as merit goods that are available to citizens on the basis of need (e.g., pensions, charitable support).

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Samuel Wilson

Despite the presence of early warning signs, organisations, communities, and nations tend not to act on complex problems until it is too late (Bazerman & Watkins, 2004). Too often, it is only when complex problems escalate to become crises that the seriousness of problems becomes sufficiently widely recognised for action to be mobilised.

Although this failure to act on complex problems is often ascribed to failures of government and private sector leadership, such explanations are partial, at best.

A more complete explanation would accord more responsibility to us, as individual citizens and as members of organisations, communities, and nations. ‘We’ must assume a larger share of the responsibility for our collective failure to act to address complex problems.

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John Fien

The VUCA World is a world constant of change and challenge.

I chose to talk about it this evening after reading your firm’s 20th Anniversary handbook.

In it, one of your managing partners wrote, “We live in a world where change and challenge are part of daily life”.

What sort of leadership is needed for the strength and commitment to take on the changes, to meet the challenges and continuing developing in a shifting world?

There are five parts to my answer to this question.

First, I describe the characteristics of the VUCA World we inhabit. Then, we will come to the numbers – One, One, Two, Four – where I will be outlining:

  • One undeniable fact about the VUCA World;
  • One major lesson for leaders from this fact;
  • Two consequences of it; and
  • Four essentials for optimizing Leadership in a VUCA World.

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Samuel Wilson

It has become a commonplace to describe the world in which we live as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. In this context, considerable energy is devoted to adaptation and change. 

However, beyond shared concerns with the survival and growth of the collectives of which we are members, there seems to be little that enjoins the myriad change efforts that consume such quantities of individual and collective energy. That is, despite the effort devoted to creating common purpose within organisations, there is little effort, or even appetite, for creating common purpose – or, indeed, commons – at the broader social level.

This would present little cause for concern were it not for the fact that the expenditure of energy in the service of private visions is not having altogether wholesome consequences for the biophysical systems in which we are nested and on which we are dependent. 

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Samuel Wilson

Leadership for the Greater Good maximizes the interests of all, or most, members of the community. However, determining exactly what is ‘for the greater good’ is a key leadership challenge.

As I have discussed elsewhere, the concepts of ‘common good’ and ‘community’ are very abstract. To illustrate, ‘community’ might be understood as a specific group of people, excluding other people deemed less worthy of moral consideration, or it might include all sentient animals, as the moral philosopher Peter Singer suggests, or it might, as argued by the late environmental philosopher Val Plumwood, be so inclusive as to include ‘nature’ more generally – human, nonhuman and nonanimal nature alike.

Further, the concepts of ‘common good’ and ‘community’ are often silent on whether specific actions enhance the greater good. Given these difficulties with concepts that seem, at first glance, so central to understanding the meaning of the public interest, where might we look to glean insights into what Leadership for the Greater Good entails?

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Samuel Wilson

Recent years have witnessed the emergence of a number of complex social, economic, political, and environmental problems, such as widening income inequality, the erosion of buffers against the coming downturn in the resources sector, the entrenchment of a new political culture that elevates private over public interests, and continuing deforestation and soil salinization. Our list of complex problems is now very long indeed.

If public trust in the ability of leaders to address our complex problems and to navigate us through crises is low, public trust in their moral compass is lower still.

Ethical failures figure prominently in explanations of crises. To illustrate, after the collapse of Enron and other corporate scandals, the media immediately began searching for the underlying cause of ethical failures – especially the ethical failures of leaders – that were held to have caused these crises (Bazerman & Banaji, 2004).

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Samuel Wilson

Our approach to some of our most complex problems has been ineffective. We seem incapable of judging some complex problems as serious enough to warrant preventative or remedial action (e.g., widening economic inequality; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009).

Yet other complex problems persevere for years before they are recognised as problems (e.g., human-induced climate change; Spratt & Sutton, 2008). In consequence, complex problems become entrenched and the costs of inaction mount.

Too often, our approach to complex problems – wicked (Rittel & Webber, 1973) and super wicked problems (Levin, Cashore, Bernstein, & Auld, 2012) – is at odds with how they ideally should be addressed.

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Samuel Wilson

In an earlier post, I suggested that elections are a time when we ask ourselves questions about the quality of our civilisation: who we are, whom we ought or would ideally like to be, and how to bridge the discrepancy, if any, between the two.

These discrepancies can alert us to our as-yet unrealised aspirations for ourselves. Equally, they can make us alive to the realisation that we are not meeting the standards we expect of ourselves.

Discrepancies, then, can make us aware of problems that we might need to attend to. Indeed, problems are defined as a discrepancy between the actual state of affairs and how things ought or ideally should be.

Although there are probably some problems that exist independently of our beliefs about them, most problems cannot be separated from the social context in which they are encountered. This means that thinking about problems must go hand-in-hand with thinking about the beliefs held by experts, authorities, and ordinary people about these problems.

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Samuel Wilson

Tame problems are definable, separable, and have correct solutions that are discoverable via familiar problem-solving processes (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Tame problems can be managed (Grint, 2010).

Consider, for example, a mathematics problem, such as solving an equation. This problem is definable (e.g., solve for x) and separable (it can be resolved independently of other equations). Further, tame problems like solving an equation possess a single correct solution, which is discoverable via processes on which there is widespread agreement (e.g., standard operating procedures). Tame problems are complicated but rarely complex (Grint, 2010).

To clarify by way of contrast, consider a wicked social problem like crime. Unlike the problem of an unsolved equation, the problem of crime cannot be unequivocally formulated or defined as a certain type of problem: it is equally a psychological problem (e.g., a failure of self-control), a social problem (e.g., a function of belonging to a ‘criminal culture’), and an economic problem (e.g., a function of economic inequality).

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Samuel Wilson

Critical problems – crises – are typically self-evident in nature and afford little time for judgement, decision-making, and action (Grint, 2010). However, whereas tame problems are obvious to experts, crises are obvious to experts and non-experts alike.

Consider, for example, the loss of life that is coincident with natural disasters like floods, fires, or earthquakes. In this instance, the relationship between cause (e.g., fire) and effect (e.g., loss of life) is unambiguous: the fire caused the loss of life. The problem is manifest (i.e., people are dead or injured) and the need for action (e.g., emergency assistance) is urgent.

Like tame problems, specific individuals or collectives, in this case authorities, figure prominently in laypeople’s beliefs about where decision-making and problem-solving responsibility lies. Specifically, during crises, responsibility for arresting the most acute symptoms of the crisis lies with authorities.

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