Leadership Quality #14: Problem Solving – You can’t let your Problems be a Problem

The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.
John Foster Dulles

Being in business and being an entrepreneur is about problem solving. Today you solve this problem and tomorrow there is a new one. Effective leaders always rise to a challenge. That’s one of the things that separates winners from whiners. You could complain about the competition or the economy or the exchange rate, or you can rise above it by solving problems with creativity and tenacity. No matter what field a leader is in, he/she will face problems.

They are inevitable for three reasons:

  • we live in a world of  growing complexity and diversity
  • we interact with people
  • we cannot control all the situations we face

Leaders with good problem-solving ability demonstrate five qualities.

  1. They anticipate problems – Since problems are inevitable, good leaders anticipate them. Anyone who expects the road to be easy will continually find themselves in trouble. If you keep your attitude positive but plan for the worst, you’ll find yourself in a good position to solve problems that come your way.
  2. They accept the truth – People respond to problems in these ways: They refuse to accept them; they accept them and put up with them; or they accept them and attempt to make things better. Leaders must always do the latter.  Broadcaster Paul Harvey said, “In times like these it is good to remember that there have always been times like these.” No leader can simultaneously have their head in the sand, and navigate their people through troubled waters. Effective leaders face up the reality of the situation.
  3. They see the big picture – Leaders must continually see the big picture. They cannot afford to be overwhelmed by emotion. Nor can they allow themselves to get so bogged down in the details that they lose sight of what’s important. “The majority see the obstacles; the few see the objectives; history records the successes of the latter, while oblivion is the reward of the former.” (Author, Alfred Armand Montapert)
  4. They handle one thing at a time“Never try to solve all the problems at once – make them line up for you one-by-one.” (Richard Sloma) The leaders who get into trouble most often are the ones who are overwhelmed by the sheer size or volume of their troubles and then dabble at problem solving. If you’re faced with lots of problems, make sure you really solved the one you’re working on before moving on to the next one.
  5. They don’t give up a major goal when they’re down – Effective leaders understand the peak-to-peak principle. They make major decisions when they are experiencing a positive swing in their leadership, not during the dark times. NFL fullback Bob Christian says, and I’m sure many athletes would agree, “I never decide whether it’s time to retire during training camp.” He knows not to give up when he’s in the valley.


“What you think means more than anything else in your life. More than what you earn, more than where you live, more than your social position, and more than what anyone else may think about you.” (Author, George Matthew Adams)
Every problem introduces you to yourself. It shows you how you think and what you’re made of.  When you come face-to-face with a problem, how do you react? Do you ignore it and hope it will go away? Do you feel powerless to solve it? Have you had such bad experiences solving problems in the past that you’ve just given up? Or do you tackle them willingly? The ability to solve problems effectively comes from experience facing and overcoming obstacles. Each time you solve another problem, you get a little better at the process. But if you never attempt it, fail and attempt it again, you’ll never be good at it.

To improve your problem solving, do the following:

  • Look for trouble – If you’ve been avoiding problems, go out looking for them. You’ll only get better if you gain experience dealing with them. Find situations that need fixing, come up with several viable solutions, and then take them to a leader with good problem-solving experience. You’ll learn from their decisions, how they think when handling difficulties.
  • Develop a method – Some people struggle to solve problems because they don’t know how to tackle them. Consider using the TEACH process:

    T  Time – spend time to discover the real issue

    E  Exposure – find out what others have done

    A  Assistance – have your team study all angles

    C  Creativity  – brainstorm multiple solutions

    H  Hit it – implement the best solution
  • Surround yourself with problem solvers – If you aren’t a good problem solver, bring others onto your team who are. They will immediately complement your weaknesses and you will also learn from them.
You can measure a leader by the problems he tackles. He always looks for ones his own size.
John Maxwell

Reading that quote, I cannot help but think of South Africa’s former Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela. She had the courage to take on big problems. The problem I’ve taken on solving is taking Africa’s leaders to the next level of their leadership success and we are all leaders, whether we are leading from the top, the middle or the base. This series has been one opportunity to do that. My coaching business is another.

Part 14 of our Leadership Series: Leadership is an Inside Job, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader


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