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predicament is a difficult, perplexing, or trying situation, according to my good friend Merriam Webster.

And I learn from my other good friend, the Online Etymology Dictionary, that the word predicament derives from the early 15th century Late Latin praedicamentum, meaning “something predicted, that which is asserted.”  Furthermore, “unpleasant situation” was an associated meaning first recorded in the 1580s.

And predicament is found in the definition of other interesting words, like scrape, jam, and lurch

  • Scrape, in its noun form, means “embarrassing or awkward predicament” tracing back to 1709, derived perhaps (so the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests) from “the notion of being ‘scraped’ as in going through a narrow passage.”
  • Jam, in its noun form, meant “machine blockage” as first recorded in 1890, and the more colloquial “predicament; in a tight spot” first surfaced in 1914.
  • Lurch, in its noun form, meant predicament; its verb form can be traced to the 1580s Middle English meaning “to beat in a game of skill”, which was perhaps derived from the mid 14th century when it referred to winning the game of lorche, a game akin to backgammon.  The game name is perhaps related to Middle English lurken, or lorken, “to lie hidden, lie in ambush.”

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I’ve never been the top guy, the head coach, the one with all the accountability.  I’ve always been a supporting player, a key adviser if you’ll allow me to use a decidedly positive characterization.

From that vantage point, I’ve had the privilege of working with leaders, those that do shoulder the weight of accountability.  They face complexity as only leaders toward the top of the pyramid can.

And often I find myself in the unenviable role of helping them fully appreciate the complexity that they face.

I articulate their predicaments.

I’ve at times pointed out the “jam” that I’ve perceived an executive to be in … I can’t say I’ve ever used the “in a scrape” description, though I certainly have pointed out the difficulty and consequences of trying to navigate a perceived narrow opportunity to act … as well as noting the likelihood of unintended consequences, as if they were currently hidden but about to ambush given the decision to act in such and such a manner …

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As my work in an adviser capacity progresses, I’m coming around to believing that leaders don’t so much have problems as much as they have predicaments.

The predicaments leaders find themselves facing are part and parcel with growth, and change, and complex interactions of social systems and technical systems and markets and stakeholders …

Therefore, predicaments are their domain.

And, while predicaments are (of course) problems, they aren’t problems that can be solved in any ordinary problem solving way.

And therein lies the problem.

For when leaders treat predicaments like problems — analyzing the components, fast-acting on this part or slow-tweaking that part, they make their predicaments worse.

Predicaments are most definitely not a matter of simple cause and effect.  If they were, they wouldn’t be predicaments!

(As an aside, keeping with my etymological bent in this post, I have given up trying to figure out how a word originally meaning “that which was predicted” changed over time to mean a difficult, perplexing, trying situation that connotes unpredictability!)

Predicaments require coping skills, first and foremost.  Projecting a high confidence in knowing the way forward and taking decisive action are executive stalwarts; predicaments can test that …

Predicaments require interpretive thinking skills.  Asking: what’s really going on here?    Challenging the analysis.  Testing the meaning of the data.  Staying aware of the natural tendency to dismiss or depreciate certain explanations because they don’t fit with your world view …

Predicaments require patience; not exactly an executive trait in widespread practice.  But the application of coping skills and interpretive thinking skills can delay immediate reactions …

And predicaments require sustained attentiveness — to signs, and shifts; in people, and in system behavior.  With calm yet focused eyes, we begin to see the formation of a way out, or, more accurately, the way through.

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Of course, predicaments are not only faced by executive leaders.  We all face them.

I am facing one now.

I’m in a scrape … a bit of a jam … in a lurch …

But it’s not a problem.

This post was inspired by Management of the Absurd: Paradoxes in Leadership by Richard Farson.