Great leaders in U.S. history showed how you can make a difference and be successful. They are exemplars of the importance of problem solving skills in leadership:
- George Washington led a ragtag army of colonial soldiers against the professional army of a world power. He overcame almost insurmountable problems as a military leader and as the first president of a new republic.
- Abraham Lincoln was the president of a country coming apart at the seams. His determined leadership and overcoming problems, during a time when others gave up, preserved our republic through an unprecedented crisis.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed office during the nation’s Great Depression. His administration was focused on solutions with the goal of restoring hope and confidence during a time of hardship and economic crisis.
- Martin Luther King attacked the problems of racial discrimination and prejudice with fearless resolve and unparalleled leadership. His “I have a dream” speech is a classic call to solve lingering problems of unfulfilled promises of the American dream.
How Recruiters Identify the Best Potential Leadership and Problem Solvers
The career path to the C-suite is paved by organizations that increasingly seek solid leadership skills when adding talent to their workforce.
According to Stephany Samuels, a senior vice president at an IT recruiting and staffing firm, “Companies thrive and grow when their workforce is comprised of leaders that instinctively explore creative solutions and bring out the best in their colleagues.”
What are the leadership traits and qualities recruiters should be looking for? According to this CNBC article, problem-solving ranks in the top three. Employers want to recruit talented people, “who are quick on their feet and comfortable resolving conflicts with unique solutions.”
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Why Problem Solving Skills are a Vital Ingredient in Your Leadership Tool Bag
Duke Ellington once observed that “A problem is a chance for you to do your best.” If you leverage your problem-solving skills, you can encourage the best performance from your team.
Effective leaders are high-level thinkers and students of human behavior. They find answers to difficult questions because their approach is rooted in strong problem-solving skills. Your own workplace problems can result from conflict, competition for resources, or poor communication. You can harness that energy with dynamic problem-solving skills.
By adapting problem-led leadership styles to your work culture, you can identify and proactively solve complex problems in the leadership challenges of your business. You can excite your team and bring unity in the organization. That unity and team spirit taps into everyone’s expertise to solve problems.
Types of leadership problems and their solutions
As a leader, you will face several types of problems. Some examples are problems that:
- were never faced before: e.g., the recent pandemic and new challenges faced by remote workers—productivity, network security, etc.
- require multiple solutions to sometimes conflicting goals: e.g., a need to cut costs without having to lay off any employees.
- are complex: e.g., a solution involving a large number of known or unknown factors—stake holders who have conflicting agendas and questionable loyalty to the entire organization.
- are dynamic: e.g., a problem with a non-negotiable deadline for solving it
Problem solving can be learned through techniques that involve:
- looking at the elements of the problem and understanding the dynamics affecting the situation
- understanding the causes behind the problem
- knowing how to leverage your advantage as well as understanding what difficulties you are facing
- evaluating the strengths of your team and their ability to help in solving the problem
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How Leaders Solve Problems
Albert Einstein once said this about problem solving: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” You cannot expect problems to go away on their own. Problem solving requires creative and proactive solutions and skills.
You can hone problem-solving skills with the sharp edges of a positive outlook. That approach is the opposite of the energy-draining commitment to unproductive struggle, which reinforces inertia.
When blame and repercussions and saying “oh, no!” poison your team, the classic movie Apollo 13 line “Houston, we have a problem” could be “Oh, no! Houston, we’re gonna die up here!”
In Apollo 13, the ground crew found solutions with only the material at hand. You can emulate that approach by saying “yes” to problems. Do that and you will employ, promote, and encourage an approach that focuses on strengths and opportunities. That approach includes:
1. Identifying the problem: Spend extra time defining problems and avoiding premature, inadequate solutions. The governing philosophy here is “A problem well stated is half solved.”
2. Evaluating the problem: You can get to the root cause of a problem by:
- looking for common patterns
- asking questions—what? who? where? when? and how?
- avoiding assigning blame and engaging in negativity
- seeking knowledge of every aspect of the issue in order to move forward
3. Backing up proposed solutions with data: By using data already accumulated over time, you can bring a persistent problem into perspective. Data analysis often connects the dots and leads to discoveries through common patterns.
4. Practicing honest communication and transparency. When you have a clear plan of action to resolve a problem, you can avoid the appearance of having a hidden agenda. The road to trust, respect and confidence from your team is through transparency. Transparency will keep the team invested and motivated in solving the problem.
5. Breaking down silos: With transparent communication, you also promote an organization without boundaries and the hidden agendas of silos. Silos prolong and support hidden agendas and can be the major cause of most workplace problems—turf wars, fear of speaking out, etc. In sum, silos are team-wrecking mechanisms that make it difficult to solve problems through isolation and blocking communication.
6. Making solutions actionable through testing: Following brainstorming sessions with those invested in the solution, you should encourage and assist the team to develop lists with logical actions, priorities, and timelines.
Your job as the leader is to assess the costs of those solutions in time and resources. Your next step is to communicate that information back to the team and do any tweaks and necessary adjustments.
7. Learning from mistakes: When mistakes and errors occur, you should incorporate the lessons learned as the foundation of further growth. Often, problem solving skills in leadership promote a culture of risk taking, where the results can be more than the sum of the risks.
You can practice positive problem-solving.
You know the value of saying “yes” to problems. That spills over into the value of acquiring positive problem-solving skills. That is where you shift the focus to the solution and away from the problem by:
Expecting the unexpected: You can deal with unexpected situations or unforeseen complications by anticipating the “what-ifs” and adding the “just in case” scenarios. It could be as simple as remaining composed when faced with the unfamiliar and adopting an attitude of concerned detachment.
Accepting the unexpected: Stuff happens, despite your best plans. Feeling frustrated is natural. As a leader, you need to stay positive and focus on the solution. When a leader gets angry, the team runs for cover and takes shelter in keeping their own counsel.
Staying optimistic: When things go awry in your problem-solving task, you should stifle your negative thoughts and bite your tongue when it comes to expressing feelings around others. Avoid comments like “This should have never happened” or “Who’s at fault here?”
Look for a learning experience in the setback. When you do that, you are showing the positive mental attitude that is expected from problem-solving leaders.
Consulting others: It is likely that some colleague or counterpart has gone through similar experiences in solving a difficult problem. You should check with your team, consult experts, or take advantage of professional social media like LinkedIn.
Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and consider multiple solutions and points of view. You are going for a wider perspective, and that perspective can expand your options and lead to solutions you may have overlooked.
Be a critical and creative thinker: The power of the mind is a wonderful and untapped tool. In its critical mode, it recognizes dissonance, inconsistency, and illogical conclusions.
In its creative mode, your mind goes deeper into an amazing subconscious process that generates and inspires options or innovative solutions. Then the mind explores those solutions in its critical role. The secret is to work on improving your critical thinking skills and trust the process.
Planning for results: When you find the successful solution, work backwards to discover the best way to make it happen. A problem manifests itself through a history of bad outcomes, which can be articulated and quantified. Focus on the problem, and you can cure the symptoms.
Never Give Up
Some problems defy your best efforts to find solutions. What you might need is fresh eyes and new approaches from unexpected sources. Perhaps some adjustments and compromises are required.
Don’t give up. Always remember the importance of problem solving skills in leadership. Next to your title in the company roster is the implied leadership role of “problem solver.”
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Founder of Eggcellentwork.com. With over 20 years of experience in HR and various roles in corporate world, Jenny shares tips and advice to help professionals advance in their careers. Her blog is a go-to resource for anyone looking to improve their skills, land their dream job, or make a career change.