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Problem Solving and The Leader

I’ve got problems, you’ve got problems. My company has problem, your company has problems. Here’s what I know about that: When there are problems or issues within the organization, people are wondering if I as the leader know about them. “Maybe Dwight doesn’t know about this? I mean, if he knew we had this problem, he would be doing something about it, right?”You see, leaders solve problems. Now I know that you as the leader are not called to be Mr. or Ms. Fixer where everybody just brings you their problems and you handle them. That is not healthy for you, the team, or the organization. But you must be skilled and involved with problems to the degree that others begin to help you create a culture where people solve problems—matter of fact, they actually run toward them. Problem-solving is the way that you differentiate yourself from your peers and get noticed for promotions. As leaders we set the standard and pace. If we cannot or will not, we lose credibility and a healthy culture.

It is amazing to me how often leaders learn of problems and let them grow, or they sense that there might be something wrong but refuse to ask questions or investigate the situation. It does tremendous damage to their own leadership and team, as well as the organization. General Colin Powell said, “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” It’s not just true in the military. Courage to face problems and lead through them is emerging as one of the most important expectations that truly accountable leaders must live up to. You know there are leaders by position only who never take responsibility for things that go wrong. They cowardly throw some of the people they lead under the bus to make the problem go away. They sit quietly in meetings, refusing to share their ideas or venture an opinion because they are afraid of conflict.Leaders know that the sooner a problem is solved, the sooner everyone can move forward. So they face them as quickly and wisely as possible. One can only do that by conquering inner fear first. We all have experiences in our lives that prompt us to draw back in fear. We have to learn to rewrite some of the scripts in our brains that tell us we are inadequate and will surely fail. For me personally, I have some truths written on a card that I read regularly to remind myself to not be afraid; I am enough.

Learning to prioritize problems is also a critical skill. We can’t be shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic while the ship is going under. We need to know what is most important and begin there. We’ll waste less energy if we know what the true root of the problem is and address it, rather than playing around the edges and doing good things but things that eventually won’t matter if the real problem is not addressed.Have you ever been in the middle of something and suddenly asked yourself, “Why am I even doing this?” Of course you have. It’s important that we take time to answer that question—sometimes we might be better off to move on to the next challenge. Most of the time, however, there is a strong moral reason or another powerful purpose behind the action. Recovering the reason why we do this, why this is important is often exactly the motivation we need to press through and solve the issue instead of giving up.

A truth that can be hard to take is this: All problems start at the head. Bottom line, everyone eventually largely does what the CEO does. If the leader is overboard on positivity and never sees or solves a problem, neither will anyone else. Unresolved problems cost dearly. Maybe your problem is an employee who cannot or will not do their job correctly. You have an employee team member who cannot or is unwilling to do their job. Maybe you are still following a process that worked five years ago but doesn’t work well now, but you keep doing it because you don’t want to hurt the feelings of the person who created it. Maybe you have a control freak on board who is shackling the hands of everyone else. YOU have to solve it.

Unresolved problems today become big problems and big dollar signs. They eventually shape your culture and even your financial future. How you handle problems directly impacts what happens to your employees and your company today and tomorrow, including your financial sustainability.Again, I am not talking about creating a culture where one leader solves all the problem. That would create a bottleneck, a dysfunctional team, and clog up progress. The reality is that effective leadership is really about putting in place the framework that enables everyone in the organization to identify and solve the problems the organization faces. Then, the effective leader must have the courage to let them do their jobs. Most likely your problem-solving capabilities are largely responsible for getting you into the position where you currently lead.

The basics of great leadership in facing and solving problems are clear:

  • Great leaders establish strong, performance-oriented cultures. The members have growth mindsets, common values, are continual learners committed to teamwork. They have the grit and perseverance to understand and overcome obstacles.

  • Great leaders get the right people on board. They live the values of the organization, and leaders coach and develop them to become high performers and great thinkers.

  • Great leaders provide the resources to enable people to solve problems and to perform. Whether it’s funding, systems, processes, tools, programs, or training, it is their top priority to put the right resources into their people’s hands to solve problems.

  • Great leaders eliminate roadblocks for their people. They constantly look to simplify, and they search for barriers and roadblocks that frustrate people’s abilities to solve problems. They seek to eliminate everything that stands in the way of each person performing at the highest levels possible.

  • Great leaders celebrate the success of the individuals and teams who are solving the problems. They recognize the source of the success and give massive credit.

Truly great leaders recognize instantly when they have violated these principles. They know it deflates their team and puts the weight back on the leader to solve the problem alone—which is virtually impossible. So then the leader’s first priority is assuming responsibility for the fail, apologizing, and fixing the problem at the point where he/she dropped the ball.Leaders are problem solvers. What’s the priority problem right now? Get after it.

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