“There is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solutions. The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern.”
–Donald Schon,“Knowing in Action”
Donald Schon wrote these words before Covid-19, before climate change was understood, before social media self-relegated the world into human factions and before globalization tilted resource and wealth distribution in favor of the developed world.
If he were here today, he might define this lowland mess as Hors catégorie. A mess beyond description, but also a mess calling for more “swamp leaders.” These are the folks who walk among us and who have made it their mission to take on the hardest challenges the world can conjure up.
Swamp leaders have chosen relevance over rigor. They have chosen the messy, vague and ill defined problems that haunt us instead of the technical problems for which there is a solution. They have chosen the harder path. They have chosen the harder work. For it is the messy work that calls forth the craft of leadership.
Today’s wicked challenges are a direct request for more leadership. Perhaps a direct request to you.
Are you up for this work?
Here are a few diagnostic questions to help you sort out this calling:
- How comfortable are you with being uncomfortable with ambiguity?
- How long can you spend diagnosing a problem before jumping to solutions?
- How important is it for you to follow a practice of mastery?
- Rate your ability to mobilize people to do hard work. Work they prefer not to do.
- What is your practice of reflection? Reflection of yourself and systems.
- How do you handle the heat of action?
- To what extent is it important for you to know answers and be right?
These are not sorting questions. But one’s answers indicate where personal challenges may arise while leading others through messy challenges. All leaders are flawed. All leaders make mistakes.
At this moment in our world, we need thousands more people who understand and embrace the work of leading inside swamp issues. This work is hard. It is also the work of the common good.
Donald Schon presses the point of the challenge and its consequences on life trajectory.
“People tend to feel the dilemma of rigor or relevance with particular intensity when they reach the age of about 35. At this point, they ask themselves, “Am I going to continue to do the thing I was trained for, on which I base my claims to technical rigor and academic respectability? Or am I going to work on the problems ill formed, vague, and messy that I have discovered to be real around here?
And depending on how people make this choice, their lives unfold differently.”