Dilemmas of Leadership: Book Review

The text Dilemmas of Leadership is in use on various leadership development programmes. But what are dilemmas? How will knowledge of dilemmas help a leader in the current economic circumstances?

Tudor Rickards, January 18th 2010

The 2006 edition of Dilemmas of Leadership suggested early in its first chapter that

The term [Dilemma] originally referred to a philosophical position that defeats logical attempts to resolve it. One of two outcomes has to be accepted, yet each contradicts previously held beliefs and their logical consequences. The early philosophers talked of being on the horns of a dilemma – where the choice is to be impaled by one or the other horn of an angry bull. Other powerful metaphors also illustrate what dilemma is like: ‘It’s being between a rock and a hard place’; ‘it’s a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea’; or ‘sailing too close to the rocks or the whirlpool’ (Scylla and Charybdis were terms used in mythology).

The essence of a dilemma is that there is no satisfactory choice that suggests itself on the evidence available. This is a position leaders find themselves in, all too often .. There is incomplete information about the consequences of the decisions. .. uncertainties are obviously worse when the decision addresses outcomes of strategic decisions at some time in the future. It can be seen that all leaders face dilemmas.

Since the book was written, the economic world has been shaken to its foundations. It is timely to rexamine the central concept of leadership dilemmas in light of changed circumstances.

Dilemmas and Discovery Learning

The authors suggest that any leader will benefit from developing skills at dealing with dilemmas through ‘map reading, map testing and map making’. By this, they mean examining belief systems for deeply held assumptions and then critically testing these assumptions so that the decision is made through a shift in perspective. There is a hint (p13) that the process has aspects of the work of Thomas Kuhn, who popularized the idea of a paradigm-switch when a belief system radically changes.

Chapters 2-9 examine leadership issues, each with its concealed dilemmas. Theis approach provides a way of structuring the major themes in the vast literature leadership. They can be illustrated by considering the materials in chapters 2 and 3.

There is a long-standing debate on whether leaders are born or made. In chapter 2 we see how this can be better understood as a dilemma arising because of two different theoretical beliefs, one assuming that leaders have special fixed traits, and the other believing that leadership excellence can be ‘made’ or developed. In chapter 3, leaders of project teams are shown to be facing the dilemma of setting clear guidelines under conditions which can never be completely clear of uncertainties (or ambiguities).

The approach has the benefit of demonstrating practical experience and theoretical ‘maps’ are valuable partners for leadership development.

Dilemmas for Today’s Leadership Challenges

Some of the dilemmas are immediately relevant to today’s leadership challenges. Chapter 9 poses the uncomfortable dilemma of ethical leadership. Can an ethical leader operate competitively? This question has taken on new significance in what might be called the post-Enron climate of business. Another dilemma, from Chapter 6, is stated as trust and the limits of rationality. We have written recently in this blog of the attention being paid to the irrational behaviours contributing to economic bubbles, and the failure of leadership to calm things down.

Do dilemmas matter?

A knowledge of dilemmas seems an arcane factor in a search for improved leadership performance. On the other hand, the book does a service in indicating that that leadership is a concept to which theory is still unavailable to provide universal answers. Rather, the authors argue, each leader needs to examine each challenge to develop a ‘conversation with the situation’ (p19) out of which improved understanding and actions may emerge.

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One Response to Dilemmas of Leadership: Book Review

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