Leadership: The Management of Organizational Dilemmas

By Art Dykstra

When asked to identify the defining characteristics of leadership, most people would appropriately mention the dynamics of interaction—the drama between leader, follower and context; goal attainment—the purpose or task for which people have come together, generally expressed in appetitive or avoidance behavior; and influencing others—the ability to develop followers, i.e., the practice of utilizing positive power.

Other characteristics can certainly be added to the ones above. John Gardner, for example, in an interesting booklet published by the Independent Sector (1986) outlines the Tasks of Leadership as envisioning goals, affirming values, motivating, serving as symbol, representing the group, managing, achieving workable unity, explaining and reviewing.

In recent months, I have been thinking of another class of behaviors that leaders must master if they are to be successful, the Management of Organizational Dilemmas. It would be interesting to undertake a leadership study to determine whether there is a step before managing organizational dilemmas—the ability to correctly identify the dilemmas that exist within the organization and its functioning.

A dilemma, as a denotative reference, is generally defined as a situation involving contradictory choices. Think about your organization and your responsibilities. Do some of the following dilemmas come to mind: professional freedom vs. organizational control; what to put in writing vs. what not to; whether to expand, reduce or remain the same with respect to issues of growth; whether to allow or restrict access to resources; to have a meeting or not; to share information or keep it confidential; to centralize or decentralize?

One of the interesting observations I have made with respect to the management of organizational dilemmas is the frequency with which one organization very similar in purpose and structure to another is either adopting or abandoning a particular pattern of behavior while the other organization is doing the exact opposite, at nearly the same time.

A clear choice certainly exists in these situations. We can keep in mind the fact that in so much of what we do, there is no right or wrong approach. The action—whether required or made by choice—may be a matter of timing or cultural appropriateness.

What do you think?

Fast Foreword: 
Fall 2001