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Is Leadership Really About Solving Problems?

by David Brock on March 18th, 2019

All of us, me included, often think a key aspect of leadership is about solving problems. Whatever the problem–a strategy problem, a market problem, a product problem, operational problems, sales/marketing problems, people problems…… We tend to think of ourselves as problem solvers.

It’s that ability to solve problems that probably got us promotion after promotion in the first place. But as you think about it, it’s actually the height of arrogance and/or vanity. The idea that our ability to solve problems is the key to our organizations’ success is hugely popular in modern business thinking and hugely off course.

Think, for a moment, the CEOs of large corporations can’t possibly have the bandwidth and knowledge to solve the problems — even the big problems — themselves. A front line sales manager doesn’t have the bandwidth and capability to solve the problems of hitting the numbers herself.

The reality, leadership is really about putting in place the frameworks that enable everyone in the organization to identify solve the problems the organization faces. Then it’s about having the courage to let them do their jobs.

Great leaders establish strong, performance oriented cultures. An organization composed by people with growth mindsets, with common sets of values, committed to continuous learning, committed to teamwork and collaboration, with the grit/tenacity/resilience to understand and overcome obstacles.

Great leaders pay attention to getting the right people on board, people aligned with the culture and values of the organization. They coach and develop those people to achieve the highest levels of performance possible.

Great leaders provide the resources to enable people to solve problems and to perform. Whether it’s funding, systems, processes, tools, programs, training; they make sure their people have what they need to solve problems.

Great leaders eliminate roadblocks to their people’s abilities to solve problems. They constantly look to simplify, they search for barriers and roadblocks that frustrate people’s abilities to solve problems. Whether it’s silo’s within the organization, whether it’s inconsistent goals/metrics, whatever it is, 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, mostly, teams who are solving the problems. They know that it’s their hard work and problem solving capability that created the success, not the “leader’s problem solving ability.”

Great leaders recognize the moment they violated these principles, they actually have taken away the responsibility and accountability for people solving these problems. On doing that, it becomes the leader’s problem to solve—which is impossible.

It may be our problem solving capabilities that got us promoted into leadership. Those abilities help us recognize what our people face, how we might develop them, help them learn to solve problems on their own. But we have to have the belief and courage to hold our people accountable for identifying the problems the organization faces and provide the framework that enables them to solve them on their own.

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