Five Habits of a Problem-Solving Leader

by Andy Wood on October 26, 2016

in Exploring the Possibilities, Five LV Laws, Leadership, Life Currency, LV Cycle, Principle of Freedom

Someone once asked General Norman Schwarzkopf the secret of his success. His reply was simple: “I never walk past a problem.”

That’s the difference between a leader and a politician. Between a leader and a poser. Between a leader and a follower. Between a leader and a talker.

Leaders – those who influence people to take massive action to accomplish a goal or mission – expect problems. But rather than moan about them or wring their hands over how complex they are – rather than kicking the can down the road with Band Aid fixes so a future generation can deal with the real issues – leaders approach problems with the expectation and commitment to solving them.

Anybody can point out problems.  Influencers – real leaders – produce solutions.  Better still, they challenge others on the team or in the organization to solve problems.  So how do you recognize a problem-solving leader or potential leader when you see one?  Here are five ways to tell – even if you’re looking in the mirror to find one.

Stay Anchored to “The Cause.”

Solution-focused leaders are mission- or purpose-driven. They recognize that their business, their team, their church, their nonprofit exists for bigger reasons than their own self-interest.  I call it “The Cause.”

Solution-focused leaders believe in The Cause.

They live The Cause.

They passionately fight for The Cause.

Every decision, every negotiation, every short-term goal, every problem is viewed through the lens of The Cause.  I can’t say it any better than Ladron Thomas, one of my former students:

A good leader will prove his goodness not by style and attractiveness, but by the visual, habitual and enduring ability to stand for a cause, even when that cause causes one to have to stand alone.

Excellent leaders know that any attempt the solve the problem that doesn’t do so in light of the overall cause will only lead to more problems down the road.

Focus on Narrowing “The Gap”

Solution-focused leaders have an idealized vision of the world – and their place in it – as it ought to be.  But these aren’t just ivory-tower dreamers or magical thinkers. They also have a clear sense of today’s brutal realities. Not the useless rhetoric of finger-pointing critics running for office, but a sober, honest embrace of the facts.

In between the idealized vision and the brutal facts lies something called The Gap.  And that’s where solution-focused leaders live and thrive.  There in The Gap, they map out a path to get from here to there.

Sometimes the path is logical, procedural, step-by-step.

Sometimes it’s moody, passionate, and gripped by feeling.

Sometimes the path is the product of sheer will and determination.

But regardless of the driver – logic, feeling, or determination – the solution-focused leader not only identifies the plan, but inspires action.  People make things better when they’re following a solution-focused leader. People narrow the gap between What Is and What Ought to Be because a leader empowered them to take action and emboldened them to believe that action would make the workplace and the world a better place to be.

Re-Frame Threats as Opportunities

Where others only see difficulties or danger, solution-focused leaders see the opportunities.  They believe that your problem is the evidence of a solution somewhere. Maybe that solution is yet to be discovered. Maybe the solution requires a resync or resuscitation.   Regardless, what appears as impossible situations only serves to enflame the imagination of solution-focused leaders.

Here’s how Robert Richardson and Katherine Thayer describe this in their book The Charisma Factor:

You don’t find charismatic leaders entrenched behind barricades.  They never allow problems to hold them down or count them out.  These leaders are active, continuously moving forward.  Their movements are never random.  Because their movements are directed and precise, they often lead to startling successes.  Charismatic leaders do more than see the glass as half-full.  They eagerly plan the filling of it to overflowing.  In other words, charismatic leaders are optimists.

Jesus illustrated that beautifully. Matthew’s gospel describes his gut-wrenched view of people who were harried and hopeless, like sheep without a shepherd. But he also saw those desperately lost people as a harvest ready to be gathered, if only there were laborers.  “Pray!” He urged his disciples.  “Pray that the Lord of the Harvest will send forth laborers into the harvest” (Matthew 9:38).

What broke His heart one minute enflamed his imagination the next.  That is a problem-solving leader.

Look Beyond Jealous, Petty Critics

Problems invite solutions. They also invite people who apparently have a vested interest in hanging on to the problem. After all, problems raise money. Millions, in fact.  But problems solved move off the radar, away from the news cycle, and out of the money flow.

Solutions, when offered by solution-focused leaders, invite the readily-available howls of the critics and cynics. No one is more criticized than a leader who arouses jealousy among petty, insecure whiners and do-nothings.  So what’s a solution-focused leader to do?

Start with humility.  Oswald Sanders wrote that “ANo leader lives a day without criticism, and humility will never be more on trial than when criticism comes.”

But in that spirit of humility, solve the problem anyway.  Pursue answers anyway. Believe anyway. Inspire anyway.  Labor and serve and dream and partner and press on anyway.

Positively, Swiftly Deal with Conflict

Sometimes the competing problems don’t come from the outside. Sometimes the problems create competing approaches to solving them.  Or conflicts of a more personal nature.

Conflict is the battle that can undermine the war effort. It’s the internal hazard that threatens to cause the whole enterprise to implode.

But conflict is also a moment of truth in relationships. It helps us define what matters most and how we can sharpen our focus.

Problem-solving leaders understand that the only two places that are conflict-free are heaven and the graveyard. For the rest of us, life is a solution waiting to be found – an answer in search of a question. And that inevitably brings us face to face with disagreements with other people.  Rather than avoiding or trying to escape those awkward, conflict-laced situations, problem-solving leaders lean into the challenges.

Brian Tracy says of leaders that

“A goal unachieved is merely a problem unsolved. A sales target unachieved is a problem unsolved. The only obstacles that stand between you and the business success you desire are problems, difficulties, hindrances, and barriers. Your ability to go over, under, or around these problems is central to your success.”

Your influence as a leader rises and falls with your ability to think like a problem solver.  So own your influence.

Stick like glue to The Cause.

Narrow the Gap between what-is and what-ought-to-be.

Find the opportunities disguised as threats or risks.

Look beyond those petty, jealous cynics.

Find those moments of truth in conflicts.

And in all this, take people with you.  The presence of a problem is evidence that somewhere there is a solution. What if you are the one who can actually lead people to solve it?

Martha Orlando October 26, 2016 at 3:03 pm

Andy, I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to Herman Cain’s talk-radio show, but he is always talking about true leaders seeking the right solutions to problems, not avoiding them. You echoed so many of the principle he touts here.
Martha Orlando´s last blog post ..How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?

Michele A. Smith October 29, 2016 at 4:34 pm

Afternoon Andy,
I was enthused upon reading your thoughts of becomming a successful leader. Most of the ideas, I had within, however, and did participate with others, as I listened to them, and advised of situations they encountered. Have certainly been encouraged, and feel more positive in my pursuits.
MS Michele

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