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Public leadership and the wicked problem continuum

Mark N. Wexler (Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada)
Judy Oberlander (Judy Oberlander and Associates Inc, Vancouver, Canada)

International Journal of Public Leadership

ISSN: 2056-4929

Article publication date: 4 September 2020

Issue publication date: 5 November 2020




This paper examines the relevance of the wicked problem continuum, particularly the emergence of super wicked challenges for public leadership researchers. Contemporary theorizing on public leadership adequately deals with tame challenges, struggles with wicked problems and remains in the dark with regards to the implications of super wicked problems


The wicked problem continuum provides a typology or set of dilemmas running from tame to wicked through to super wicked problems. These different problem types are treated as if they were on a three-zone continuum in which the difficulty of solving or substantially reducing the problem varies from relatively low to very high.


We delineate the three-problem contexts in the wicked problem continuum and discuss the ideal type of organization thriving in each zone. We then posit two opposing wicked problem interpretations-taming and wilding- for those interested in public leadership. Taming calls for prudent, results-oriented leaders employing tried and tested practices. Wilding demands leaders who test the status quo by seeking alternatives.

Social implications

On the global leadership agenda, wilding problems—those calling attention to the super wicked zone—are escalating. Despite this, public leaders' training lacks a framework for making sense of these urgent and publicly contentious super wicked problems.


Public policy researchers are beginning to direct attention to super wicked problems such as climate change, and pandemics. This work introduces the wicked problem continuum and demonstrates its pertinence for researchers of public leadership.



Wexler, M.N. and Oberlander, J. (2020), "Public leadership and the wicked problem continuum", International Journal of Public Leadership, Vol. 16 No. 4, pp. 359-373.



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