By Meike Beckford

In the last few weeks, my two worlds of MBA and social care have come together on the topic of leadership. First, at a Skills for Care ‘Well Led’ training course and then on my ‘Responsible Leadership’ module, I have (re-)discovered the concept of tame and wicked problems and the different requirements they have for leadership and management, which I wanted to share with you as a useful reflective tool.


Tame, wicked1 … and critical

Some challenges are complicated, some are complex. Building a jet engine is complicated – it takes incredible amounts of people, technology and process, but we do know how to do it (I use ‘we’ in the broadest sense, having little engineering prowess myself!), so it is a complicated task that can be solved by following a process – it is a tame problem.

Climate change on the other hand is a complex problem – whilst we know some things about it, there is such a myriad of factors, stakeholders, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, that we cannot envisage a solution and indeed there most likely is no single solution or end point, but an ongoing process of discovery, development and learning. This makes it complex – we don’t know how to solve it and must focus on ongoing engagement and collaboration to work on it together – making it a wicked problem.

Add into this, critical problems; that is highly time-sensitive emergencies, that need immediate action. Say, a road traffic accident or fight breaking out. We spring into action to deal quickly with the issue.

Manage, lead, or command

These three types of problem demand different approaches from those tackling them:

  1. A tame problem requires management to implement a (known) process
  2. A wicked problem requires leadership to ask questions
  3. A critical problem requires command to give immediate answers

Intuitively, it makes sense. If someone draws out a gun in a crowded shopping centre, no-one wants the police to ask everyone to take a moment to think about how society has created the conditions for this person to feel that their only option was to murder countless strangers. You want them to be decisive, give clear instructions, get people out of harm’s way and deal with the threat. You want a command rather than leadership approach… and in fact a command approach that can quickly move into management – we’ve seen this before folks, we know what to do, trust in the process.

Source: Keith Grint 3

(Which one) do we choose?

Here, there are different schools of thought. Traditional trait-based leadership theories might suggest that the leader can choose their approach by force of personality, preference or willpower; however this may neglect the context. Instead, situational leadership models would tell you that you need to understand the situation in order to execute the correct strategy. So, if you are faced with a problem, analyse it to understand whether you have a tame, wicked, or critical problem on your hands and then use the appropriate style.

But, how can we objectively analyse a situation and ‘scientifically’ state that it is definitely ‘x’? The above examples are perhaps fairly clear cut, but is everything? We cannot have a birds-eye view of everything and are always influenced by our own values, context and intention. As is everyone else. So, there will be lots of different perspectives and readings of a situation – which one is ’right’? In fact, ‘the context or situation is actively constructed’2 – the leader or group create a shared understanding of the nature of the problem and therefore the appropriate solution. This is an often unconscious and constantly evolving process. Is the ‘war on terror’ a wicked problem that requires a collaborative, questioning, global approach, or an urgent threat that requires immediate military action?

So, a leader may need to try to understand the situation, but also understand how the situation is being perceived and framed by others, as well as trying to influence this framing. Essentially then, in order to influence a situation and take action, they need to marry (1) persuading others of the nature of the problem and (2) implementing the leadership, management or command authority style to suit.

We see this frequently amongst business leaders and politicians, often clashing against media attempts to convince us that something is, or is not, a crisis. Pressure groups will try to up the ante by reframing something as a ‘climate emergency’ or ‘social care crisis’ to force a different response from politicians. Alternatively, leaders may use a management style to provide reassurance and convince others that there’s nothing to worry about, it’s business as usual and they can be trusted to manage the process.

Getting the two right can be a challenge and it is not about trying to force through your version of events and control the narrative. For me, what this concept brings is a sense that there are different ways to approach things and these will change over time – situations are actively and constantly constructed – as leaders we are part of that, as is everyone around us. We can reflect on how we are both conceiving the problem and conveying that to those we wish to lead. How will a different framing impact on me and others? How can I conceive and act differently here? A leader who is always asking questions can empower and inspire a team, or come across as incompetent and weak depending on the context. We must be constantly mindful of different constructions of the situation – how people see it – and which role we are acting in. We do not need to pick just one approach, but can add this to our toolbox to make us more reflective and hopefully effective leaders.

My thanks again to Lancaster University Management School, in particular Randall Zindler, Emma Watton and Prof Steve Kempster, and Skills for Care.

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1 Rittell, H. & Webber, M. (1972) ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, Policy Sciences, 4, pp.: 155-169

2 Grint, K. (2005) ‘Problems, Problems, Problems: The Social Construction of ‘Leadership’’, Human Relations, 58(11), pp.: 1467-1494

3 Grint K. (2008) ‘Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions: The Role of Leadership’, Clinical Leader, 1(2)