Leadership: Working Together Effectively and Efficiently to Achieve a Common Purpose

  • Joachim P. Sturmberg


As Heifetz and colleagues put it: “People have long confused the notion of leadership with authority, power and influence. We find it extremely useful to see leadership as a practice, an activity that some people do some of the time”. In their words, true leadership entails that “leaders facilitate the necessary adaptive work that needs to be done by the people connected to the problem”.

The role of leaders and their leadership is to solve the complex problems facing their organisation. Such complex problems are often referred to as wicked; they span disciplines and organisations, and create constant tension amongst stakeholders and their objectives. Rittel characterised complex/wicked problems as exhibiting the following characteristics:
  • Many wicked problems are only be fully understood after we have found a solution for the problem

  • Wicked problems rarely can be truly solved, one is forced to live with the outcome one has achieved when one’s resources run out

  • Solutions to wicked problems are neither right nor wrong, the judgement of a solution depends on a stakeholder’s inherent values and goals

  • Every wicked problem is unique and novel, it will never again be experienced in this particular way

  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one shot operation”, you cannot solve a wicked problem without trying a solution, but every solution has potentially unintended consequences giving rise to new wicked problems

  • Wicked problems have no alternative solutions, an applied solution is the one out of many possible ones chosen and implemented based on its stakeholders’ judgement

The nature of today’s problems has created a VUCA world, a world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.

How do we best manage the wicked problems of our VUCA world? The most crucial step in managing these type of problems is to recognise and accept that the prevailing linear approaches to solve wicked problems in a VUCA world are themselves a hindrance to solving wicked problems. Wicked problems cannot be solved by a single person, they require a collaborative approach. VUCA problems require VUCA approaches, approaches of Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility.

Learning, the creation and transfer of knowledge, is the only way to manage wicked problems. As Alvin Toffler put it: “The illiterate of the 21 st century will not be those who cannot read & write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. We are all leaders some of time, hence, we all have to learn that:
  • We cannot command but have to seek the knowledge of our collaborators

  • We always know more than we can say, and we always can say more than we can write. Written knowledge is reflective knowledge, valuable but not pragmatic in circumstances where decisions have to be made

  • Knowledge is deeply contextual; we only readily retrieve our most important knowledge when demanded by circumstances

Leaders thus have to learn to lead and unlearn to prescribe solutions. Ron Heifetz described leadership as: leaders facilitate the necessary adaptive work that needs to be done by the people connected to the problem. Adaptive leaders allow others to grow, they:
  • Give permission to experiment

  • View failure as an opportunity for individuals and the organisation to learn

  • Learn about the multiple realities that people experience in various parts of the organisation

Leading an organisation and facilitating its members’ adaptive work requires an understanding of the “organisation as a whole”, in particular that:
  • An organisation is composed of many interdependent parts that all work towards a common goal

  • The 80/20 rule applies, not all system/organisational components are equally capable or equally crucial to achieve its common goals

  • An organisation’s constraints limit its ability to achieve its common goals. Leaders need to focus their organisation’s resources on those constraints as the most affective means towards achieving its common goals

Organisations with adaptive leadership:
  • Create trust amongst all members

  • Facilitate personal and organisational sense-making

  • Maintain a focus on the organisation’s purpose, goals, and values

  • Have a deeper understanding of the organisation as a whole, have a focus on understanding problems within their context, and appreciate the importance of the organisation’s culture


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joachim P. Sturmberg
    • 1
  1. 1.University of NewcastleWamberalAustralia

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