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Problem Solving for Leaders


“If you want something done right, do it yourself.” …right?

Advice I often heard from my dad was, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Maybe you’ve heard this too, as it’s an old adage that has been passed down for generations. My dad probably heard this blanket advice from my grandpa who most likely heard it from his dad. It is definitely a “Daddism” that comes out when kids are not doing things quite the way they *should* be done. This sage advice is stored in the same toolbox where you can find “My way or the highway” and “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” We may have rolled our eyes at these pearls of wisdom as kids, but we sometimes catch ourselves echoing them as adults!

Manager vs Leader

As I look back on my career, I can see that my dad’s do-it-yourself mantra really shaped the way I managed teams as a young leader. Note that I said managed teams and not led teams. What I’ve learned in my years of evolution and growth as a leader is that management and leadership are two different entities. Many managers try to do everything themselves. I sure did! The reasons behind this vary based on the leader and circumstances, but one common theme is that the leader is trying to solve a problem by doing the solving themselves instead of using a strategic, people-centered approach. The former sometimes works but can lead to burnout, over-dependence on the leader, lack of autonomy, and a plethora of other unhealthy team issues. 

Problem solving with intention

Being a creative, proactive, and intentional problem solver is essential to every leader no matter their role or industry. Good leaders approach each problem as an opportunity to learn, to teach, and to strengthen their teams, and they know that strategically addressing issues leads to better outcomes. Makes sense, right? Here are some practical communication steps to guide you as you grow in your ability to lead well.

Step 1
CLARIFY the problem. 

  • Ask questions and listen with a goal to understand the whole story.
    • Can you tell me more?
    • How long has this been going on?
  • Avoid assumptions whenever possible.
  • Ensure that all parties feel heard and get a chance to contribute, when applicable.
    • I can see how this could be frustrating…
    • What outcome would you like to see?

Step 2
EXPLORE potential solutions.

  • Think outside the box. Brainstorm and include others. 
    • What ideas do you have to solve the problem?
  • Determine what can be done now, later, and by whom.  
  • Identify who can help you. Can problem-solving tasks be delegated? 

Step 3
DISCUSS possible solutions. 

  • Explain what we CAN do about the problem.
    • What we can do now is…
    • My idea to help you is…
  • Provide options to stakeholders to allow for choice.
  • With the person(s), reach an agreement on next steps. Compromise when possible!
  • Determine timeline for the first step.

Step 4
EVALUATE the progress and outcomes.

  • Good leaders follow-up and hold their teams accountable. Have the agreed upon steps been taken?
  • Was the problem resolved or is there a need for an adjustment?
  • How do the stakeholders feel about the current outcome?


Communicate and clarify

Ultimately, solving one problem is never like solving another. One constant, however, is communication. Follow the steps laid out above, be intentional about asking helpful questions, and continue to communicate and clarify until you have reached a resolution. Every problem you encounter as a leader is an opportunity to grow in your communication and problem solving skills. YOU have the power to fill your own tool belt!

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