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An introduction to public leadership
An introduction to public leadership

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1.4.4 Adopting leadership styles to suit the context

Bill Clinton wearing a batik shirt, standing in line with three other batik-shirted heads of state.
Figure 9

Developing and mobilising dialogue with other stakeholders – about the goals and public purposes to be pursued, and the outcomes to be achieved – is now seen as a critical part of the purpose of leadership. This has increasingly come to the fore as society grapples with complex problems, which cut across society and are beyond the scope of a single organisation to tackle.

The role of leadership in analysing and framing complex problems has, in some ways, always lain at the heart of leadership studies. For example, earlier this week you read about the definition of leadership by Ralph Stogdill (1950) which was about goal-setting and goal-achievement, while many other definitions are based on purpose or task. So, thinking about what leadership aims to achieve may influence how leadership is exercised. A number of writers have distinguished different types of problem or challenge, and have argued that they call for different types of leadership. An American writer called Ronald Heifetz (1994) made an important distinction between technical problems and adaptive problems, an approach that has had increasing influence in the leadership debate.

Technical problems include those that have been encountered before, where the causes are fairly well understood, for which known solutions already exist, and which can be addressed by a particular organisation, profession or service. Technical problems may be complicated but they are potentially resolvable through existing practices. The leadership challenge is to make it happen. One example of a technical problem in the health service is the need to wash hands to prevent the spread of infection within hospitals. Staff in hospitals know the evidence, and they agree about what needs to be done (at least formally) – the challenge is to make it happen in practice.

By contrast, adaptive problems are characterised by a lack of knowledge or agreement about either what causes the problem or what might solve (or ameliorate) it. Furthermore, adaptive problems often require changes in values, attitudes and/or behaviours among those who are involved in the problem field – they may be unwittingly or wittingly contributing to the problem along with other people. This may require a painful recognition by leaders and stakeholders that they are part of the problem as well as part of the solution – and so part of the leadership role is to challenge and support people in giving up long-held beliefs and attitudes.

Attempting to resolve an adaptive problem may throw up other challenges because the problems are cross-cutting and interrelated. Often, large groups of people have to join together to contribute to solving the problem, through changing their mind-sets and behaviours. An example of an adaptive problem is childhood obesity.

Clarifying the purpose of leadership is so close to the heart of the question for Heifetz that he defines adaptive leadership as ‘mobilising people to tackle tough problems’ (Heifetz, 1994, p. 15). Adaptive problems require a different kind of leadership in which the leader must refuse to collude with the fantasy that he or she has magic solutions to the problem, and must instead persuade ‘followers’ that they need to be involved in addressing the problem and that they may indeed be part of the problem as well as part of the solution. The leadership challenge in these circumstances is to confront the complexity of the problem and seek to orchestrate the work of a range of people to address it. This requires a different leadership style and approach compared with that involving a technical problem.

And of course, technical and adaptive challenges are not necessarily objective. It is part of the role of a leader to help define and make sense of what is a technical and what is an adaptive problem. They have scope to influence perceptions in this regard. Were the floods in the Somerset Levels in England a few years ago merely a technical problem (e.g. about drainage and rivers, emergency response decisions), or were we facing a more complex set of problems (about climate change, house building, use of land and so on). Leaders have a potential role in how problems are framed.