The Leadership Trait Nobody Talks About…

Rediscover grace as a part of your leadership approach…and look for it in others’.



What’s a fundamental difference between a professional whose career is summed up as “noble leader” and one whose career can be summarized as “tyrant?”


For those of us who believe in a constrained view of the world…one where actions have consequences and consequences are real things; the concept of grace can be a hard one.

Grace, put simply, is unmerited favor. It’s something for nothing.

Just where exactly, you might ask, does that belong in business?

I have spent my career driving performance on investment returns, growth, cost, and productivity. I’m a consistent proponent of competitive intensity, performance and professionalism. These things are fundamental to success in the for-profit world.

So, isn’t it impossible to build “grace” into a culture of performance? Isn’t “performance” supposed to be a maximum Net Present Value, no-holds-barred, social Darwinist drive for the greatest efficiency possible, TODAY, grace be damned?

In short? No.

The most mature performance cultures build grace into their models of leadership because they also build risk taking into it. The latter cannot be sustained without the former. A performance culture that pillories its unsuccessful risk takers will eventually have no risk takers left. Such is the reality of incentives.

Because we as leaders in our organizations, churches, and communities, have power; we must understand and remember the notion of grace and how it relates to performance and value creation.

We’ve all received the benefit of grace from leadership or fellowship at some point in our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not:

  • Maybe it was that time when you got sick and were able to turn in your term paper late, saving you that last few credits for graduation.
  • Maybe it was the time you flubbed the numbers on the project justification, should have been reprimanded, but were coached instead.
  • Maybe it was the time your husband sat quietly while you bitterly criticized him.
  • Or, when you tapped your car into another in a parking lot and the old guy whose car you hit just smiles and says “no harm, no foul.”
  • Perhaps it was when one of your direct reports at work forgave you–fully–for a stress-laden tirade where your “f-bombs” flowed freely, you threw things, and perhaps kicked a wall or two.
  • Or, when your best friend pretended not to notice when you said something really awful to his girlfriend over a petty issue.
  • Perhaps–and this one hits close to home for me–you once got into the game before you were really good enough to merit it.
  • Finally, it might be the many thousands of instances of grace that reside in your blind spots–the grace extended to you when you didn’t know you needed it extended. That time you talked for half an hour about yourself and your hobbies and everybody listened to you without telling you what a boor you were comes to mind.

Reflecting on instances like these can make you a better leader; and let’s be honest, a better citizen.

Most people keep some sort of reciprocal account in their heads for the moments of grace they have been fortunate to receive. I find that I’m at my most thankful when I reflect on them (and no, not all of those listed above are mine). However, some among us keep a reciprocal account for the opposite of grace–the perceived slights or moment of disobedience we experience from people who know better than to cross us.

That account is what leads to vindictiveness. That account leads to personal pain. It leads to the inability to forge deep relationships because people constantly seek to avoid your glare and blame.

These two accounts are branches of the same roots of rational and emotional realities. Debits and credits of the brain–a commitment to reciprocity–are basically a part of our being communal animals. They lead us down two paths as leaders.

We are graceful, or we are vindictive.

We are the sheepdog, or we are the wolf.

One of us sees the world around us as worth saving and growing. This one sees performance as a prerequisite for success and drives it, but with a code of dignity and grace.

The other harbors the innate contempt that the predator has for the sheep.

In real life, people you know are representative of both personalities. It’s up to you and me to figure out who among us is leading in order to protect, grow, and edify; and who is leading in order to devour.

It’s also up to you and me to establish a code that gives a head nod to grace and therefore to risk taking.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the figurative sheepdogs from the figurative wolves. Both are beautiful animals. Both are also capable of immense, violent action at the moment of provocation. There is no net-present performance advantage to being a wolf–don’t let anyone tell you differently. Still, if you look for visible signs of grace–not favor for people who are “useful” but rather true, unmerited favor…you will know the difference.

A final thought: A common meme in our western business culture is that “there is no loyalty anymore.”

Loyalty is the followership equivalent of leadership grace.

Perhaps followers no longer see enough grace from their leaders to merit loyalty in abundance.

In other words, perhaps you see no loyalty because they see no grace.

Perhaps its time to start talking about grace in leadership again.

Geoff Wilson appreciates the grace he has received, especially for the stress-laden tirade.

Get a Grip and Let Go

Just what, exactly, is all that control doing for you?



Insights are everywhere.

On October 18th, I accompanied my 9-year old daughter to a birthday party for a younger cousin.

We had a fantastic time. During the party, the kids, both the younger ones and the older ones, were playing with (helium) balloons.

When it came time to leave, my daughter–an artistic, free spirit with a penchant for unique insights–walked outside of the home, balloon held firmly by the ribbon in her hand, before everyone else.

I watched her look to the sky, slowly release her balloon, and watch it with a big smile on her face as it floated away into the evening sky.

Many, many of instances of an unfettered balloon have led to tears in my family (no, not from 9 year-olds, but still).

I stepped outside and said to her: “Oh, no! You lost your balloon.”

Her response? “No, I let it go.”

Me: “Why?”

Her: “Because I like to watch them fly away.”

I was so impressed.

She gained happiness from releasing a balloon that she could have otherwise kept tethered as it lost its buoyancy without ever reaching greater heights. And, guess what? 2 other kids that walked out at that moment let theirs go after hearing her explanation.

It was contagious, and fun.

That moment was a reminder to me of an important leadership concept that I have learned and mentioned to groups over time: The concept of leading with an open hand. Letting go of ground level control in order to allow talent to find its own level in anticipation of greater things.

Management gurus talk about openness, collaboration, encouraging autonomy, and empowerment all the time. All of these are easy, fun words to throw around. Even the worst leaders I’ve encountered believe in these words as management tools.

It’s the actions behind these words that are hard.


They are hard because your own early leadership development (in your early career, parenting, or otherwise) depended on skills that actually become success inhibitors the more you and your children, employees, or other influencees progress.

Maturing as a parental or organizational leader of any sort means that:

  • You go from directing your children (iron fist, velvet glove) to influencing them.
  • You go from managing people (plan and do) to leading them (check and adjust).
  • You go from a problem solving approach that revolves around telling the process and answer to one that revolves around asking the right questions and motivating people.
  • You go from a resource deployment approach that is essentially a zero ambiguity, zero sum budgeting and directing process to one that is more about allocating, iterating, and “growing the pie.”
  • You go from a people development approach that revolves around “your” people to one that revolves around “their” careers.

All of these are examples of moving from a closed handed approach (tight control, turf, ownership, and direction) to an open handed one (guiding, influencing, motivating, cultivating, and freeing).

Figuring this out just might be the difference between admirable management success and true executive competence.

Some never do figure it out; and it shows.

So what?

Be willing to release your people, your agendas, and your resources in order to stretch and test them. It might bring you satisfaction beyond what control ever could.

After all, a balloon tethered to the ground is impressive; but not nearly as impressive as one surfing the wind.

If you love something, set it free. Let things go to see if they grow. You can regain control, but you might never find out what is possible if you don’t merely set expectations and then allow the slack for your people to explore, learn, and grow.

You might unlock more joy and success, not to mention trust and confidence, in the process.

And, it might be contagious.

Geoff Wilson hopes that his children grow up with an understanding of how much they have inspired him.

Click Here if You Know How to Read

If you enjoy connecting the dots and thinking critically about the world around you, read on.

Below is a list and some discussion on ten books every executive should know.

Some of the books I’ve listed are all about how to “play offense” (that is, to build and execute on a philosophy of leadership effectiveness). Some, however, are very much about how to play defense (that is, to understand some disordered twists on philosophies and personalities that you might want to avoid).

Two things before the list:

First, I use the term “know” as opposed to “read,” since simply reading a book is not sufficient. Lots of people “read” (past tense) Animal Farm back in junior high or high school. Few can really internalize the implications at that age.

I’d argue it’s important to know these books’ content at a practical level. Many people will tell you they’ve read one of these books, and then go on to bastardize the philosophy. In fact, several items below are in the list because they are popularly twisted (hello, Hayek!).

I may even do the same thing in my notes below.

You’ll never know unless you know the books. I encourage you to know what you believe.

Second, this is a list of books that take on politics, philosophy, economics, change leadership, and human nature.

What you don’t see in the list is a set of business books.

I’d much rather encourage the world to think critically about their situation than to look at books that encourage them to emulate others’ situations. True, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but it’s good to know whether a wheel is what you really need.

That’s where critical thinking comes in.

But, I digress…Onward.

Ten Books Every Executive Should Know

1. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

What it is: A rambling screed of a novel written against statism, cronyism, and bureaucracy everywhere. Atlas Shrugged has stood the test of time. Sadly, it is, in the end, a caricature of philosophy and good writing all at the same time. Still, after reading Rand, the next time you are in a meeting with a bureaucratic leader who dissembles with vision-less imprecision, you’ll ask yourself “Who is John Galt?” with warm self confidence.

Why read it: Because Rand is every 25-year-old budding executive’s favorite author; and unfortunately between the ages of 25 and 45, few budding executives read very much.

Know this: Befriend anyone who embraces Rand’s fundamental premise (essentially, you can’t conjure individual well being out of thin air or by force and theft / can’t have your cake and eat it too). Beware anyone who thinks “Shrugged” is great literature or airtight philosophy (they are more likely to be one of Rand’s “moochers” or “mystics” than they will ever realize).

Extra Credit: Read Rand’s The Fountainhead for a better read and a more concise understanding of Rand’s super-individualist point of view.

2. Animal Farm, by George Orwell

What it is: An anti-communist allegory. It has great messages for leaders everywhere, particularly in organizations undergoing transformational change (watch out for those animals who grab power for themselves and deceive others). Ultimately, it’s a dark story, but it’s also a warning relevant to many leaders and groups.

Why read it: Because too often Orwell’s little book is ascribed solely to political systems when it really can be applied to organizational systems as well. As a leader, you should know your constituencies well. Pigs who espouse equality, transparency, and performance but who are just ever-so-slightly more equal than others exist in every organization.

Know this: Too often, it’s the “Boxers” (the hardworking, loyal draft horse in Animal Farm) in your organization that make it go. Get to know your Boxers. Keep in mind the anecdote of the cat “re-educating” the sparrows to perch on the cat’s paw next time you think you can fool people into changing their behavior when your own behavior doesn’t engender the trust necessary for them to change.

3. The Road to Serfdom, by F.A. Hayek

What it is: Hayek’s classic warning of the perils of central planning and actions that obscure price.

Why read it: Because you probably have read some Smith, Keynes, and Friedman, but you’ve probably only heard second hand regurgitations of Hayek. Go to the source. It’s applicable to you as a leader in an organization. The more you confuse your people as to who has what incentives and as to what actions have what costs, the more you push your organization down the road to serfdom…

Know this: The favorite poster child of Libertarians everywhere was a proponent of social services and safety nets in wealthy societies.

4. Better, by Atul Gawande

What it is: A collection of essays on improvement in surgery and medicine, written with a heartfelt focus on both incremental and tansformational improvement. As a book, it’s as close to a safe haven of reflection for change leaders that I have found.

Why read it: Gawande’s essays, centered on three virtues of diligence, doing right, and ingenuity, are useful to any leader who really wants his organization to do…better.

Know this: Getting better in any pursuit does require diligence, values, and ingenuity. Gawande’s book is a good set of examples.

5. Capital in the 21st Century, by Thomas Piketty

What it is: If you don’t know at least the caricature of the book, you must not read the news much. Depending on your point of view, The book is either about how Piketty wants world governments to confiscate and redistribute all wealth OR how he wants to save capitalism from its own structural instability. My read is that Piketty has posed an intellectually honest and largely fact-based outline of real structural deficiences of “run rate” capitalism (read that: Capitalism without world wars or other significant dislocations of capital holdings), with a probably-right-but-probably-impractical taxation scheme as the cure.

Why read it: Because so few people with opinions on Piketty’s writing have actually read Piketty’s writing; and Piketty’s writings are relevant to global economics and politics.

Know this: As popular as an economist can get, Piketty has pricked the finger of capitalism in ways that few writers have since early in the 20th century. You’d best know what his premise is (Fundamentally: That economic growth cannot over the long run outrun return on capital, leading to capital structurally accumulating in fewer and fewer hands without intervention) so you don’t get misled by people who think they know what it is (“he’s a raging socialist” is my favorite ad hominem).

6. The Signal and the Noise, by Nate Silver

What it is: A engrossing but dense read on managing through the noise and moving forward in the face of ambiguity. Silver’s experience predicting elections is extrapolated to many different arenas (including poker).

Why read it: Applying Silver’s (essentially Bayesian) approaches to management takes “decision making” from a once a year budgeting process to a constantly updated, probabilistic approach to “leadership.”

Know this: Even if you are right, you might be wrong (and vice versa). Randomness can still beat you. But, there are methods that can help minimize the risk. Silver’s book outlines how.

7. The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout

What it is: Stout’s treatise on the prevalence and malevolence of disordered personalities in your community and the workplace.

Why read it: While Stout’s estimates of the population prevalence of sociopaths (~4%) are higher than other experts’, the fact that these personalities self select into and thrive within corporate environments means her estimates are probably conservative when applied to your office. The next time someone stabs you in the back and then takes you out to lunch and asks you to pity them for the situation that made them stab you, this book will ring a bell.

Know this: People who lack conscience are out there. They are dangerous to you if you espouse a values set of any sort. And, they thrive in political organizations. Know, especially, how to spot them over time (Silver’s Bayesian approaches are helpful). Try to inoculate yourself as a leader from the charms and methods of these particular animals above and below you in the organization. If you don’t know they are there, others around you do and are feeling the pain of their machinations.

8. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, by Jon Krakauer

What it is: A story of the May 1996 disaster on Everest. It’s also a gripping read with lots of action.

Why read it: Under the surface of this popular nonfiction narrative is an amazing web of case studies and lessons on decision making. The pressure to succeed, whether it comes from within an individuals (“my life goal is to summit Everest”) or from commercial interests (the guides made a lot of bad decisions with a lot of money on the line), has to be managed.

Know this: In rare environments, it takes rare skill to evaluate one’s circumstances effectively and make the right decisions. Executives who are confronted with deal fever (“let’s just get this thing closed”) should go back and re-read this book. Sometimes, when you are 100 feet from the summit, it’s the right answer to turn around and go home.

9. The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins

What it is: A deep, logical dive into the notion that we are all just carriers for our genes.

Why read it: Because ideas travel like genes, and Dawkins was one of the first to realize and discuss it. He invented the notion of the Meme. As leaders, you and I trade in ideas.

Know this: Dawkins’ summaries of population genetics, memetics, and game theory (his “Evolutionarily Stable Strategy” concept still fascinates) have amazing applicability to change leaders everywhere. Unless you understand why people behave in an organization they way they do and what it takes to change, you can never really effect change as a leader.

10. Deep Survival, by Laurence Gonzales

What it is: A scorching examination of why and how people survive in many different life threatening circumstances.

Why read it: As with so many things in life, the art of survival is sometimes counter intuitive. Gonzales provides a view of extremely valuable traits that you might otherwise overlook. He boils down survival to a set of guidelines that are directly applicable to the life of any reader: Stay calm, be humble, don’t rush, have a plan but don’t fall in love with the plan, enjoy nature, do it for others. If you and I did these things every day, we would be much more effective than we are.

Know this: Gonzales’ examination brings into question what traits we really need in people who are leading themselves and others through harrowing circumstances. The next time you are looking for a prototypical talent, think about the survivors in Gonzales’ book and look again. Sometimes the best survivor isn’t the endurance athlete, it’s the pudgy guy who moves slow and continually examines the world around him.

There you have it.

This is just a list of ten books. I could make a list of 5 or 20 and it would be equally incomplete. There are insights everywhere. Go find them.

I’d love for you to add your “must know” books to the comments section. I (and other readers) might learn something.


Potholes of the Mindset

As you flex your problem solving style, watch out for a few potholes.

This is the third of three posts I pulled together on the topic of effectiveness in problem solving. In the first post, I outlined some thoughts from my experience on common behaviors and mindsets that masquerade as problem solving. In the second, I offered a simple framework for thinking about how to flex one’s problem solving mindset.

In this one, I’m going to offer three problem solving pitfalls that come to mind. These can kill your effectiveness as a problem solver. I’ll refer back to the grid from my second post a few times, so it may be useful to click on that link and familiarize yourself with the grid if you haven’t already. While the grid is not Earth shattering, it is my own; and so it is somewhat unique.

Here we go.

Pitfall 1: Getting Stuck in the Mindset “Corners”

Being too much of anything in problem solving is a bad thing, except in extreme circumstances (which, let’s be clear, are truly rare). Referring back to the Drive/Collaboration grid I outlined in my post “Find Your Problem Solving Mindset,” you and I need to be sure to avoid the corners of the grid. Getting stuck in the corners can lead to bad things for you and your teams.

On the grid, I’ve labeled a few “bad” problem solving mindsets that can kill effectiveness. They are Wonk, Friend, Hero, and Consensus Builder.

  • The Wonk is likely to get caught up in analysis paralysis; he’s a navel gazing superstar.
  • The Friend struggles to enable decision and action; he wants to please everyone and actually pleases no one.
  • The Hero suffers from smartest guy in the room syndrome; he won’t listen to others.
  • The Consensus Builder spends too much time trying to tradeoff decisiveness with inclusiveness; he exhausts his team with endless, driven iteration.

Be careful of the corners. I’d also say be careful of piddling around in the center of the grid as well, but I’ve covered that with the admonition (in my previous post) that we must spend enough time in quadrant 1 (“Thinker”) to place ourselves in one of the other quadrants.

One thought here: My observation has been that too many leaders end up in the corners after getting specific (and likely painful) feedback on their particular problem solving behaviors (“build more consensus” is a common one). They overcorrect and end up diving into a corner.

This is especially true of the “Friend” and “Consensus Builder” pockets–execs who are told to collaborate more but don’t understand the subtleties of doing so end up in these corners. They overcorrect from being in a constant warrior mindset (“I’ll solve it myself”) after receiving feedback that they need to be more inclusive. Don’t overcorrect.

Pitfall 2: Hiding Behind a Phony Mindset

Here’s a real sapper of executive effectiveness among under-apprenticed leaders. You shouldn’t pretend that you are an upper right quadrant leader working to build the best answer by leveraging all people’s strengths when you actually just want your answer to be the one chosen (meaning you were in the upper left “Warrior” quadrant all along).

You also shouldn’t pretend that you are going to solve a problem all by your lonesome (upper left quadrant) and then rely on others to get things done because you never had the skills or credibility in the first place. “I’ll figure it out” or the more pithy “fake it ‘til you make it” head-fake is a dangerous and arrogant approach to problem solving. Be open about your intentions and your limitations.

Being phony may work in a one-shot game, but life is not a one shot game.

Pitfall 3: Tangling With People Who Don’t get the Concept of Dynamic Mindsets

I’m not going to sugar coat this one, but the reality is that many, many people out there have a dark view of problem solving that amounts to “be decisive and tell people what to do” or “just tear every problem apart and solve it yourself.” They never move out of the Warrior mindset.

If you are a dynamic problem solver who knows when to alter your style, you will confuse and possibly bother these kind of people, whether they are subordinate to you or superior to you in the organization. They will look for specific behaviors (like giving orders) that simply won’t be there.

For example, if you are the executive enabler playing a background role to make a broader team more effective, and you are on a team or in an organization that highly values and respects brute force (“hand out orders and hold their feet to the fire”); watch out.

Be explicit about your role. That may not fix the problem for the long term, but you will at least state your aims and be clear that you are playing outside the organization’s leadership comfort zone.

Good problem solvers can improve the behavior of bad problem solvers, exceptwhen the bad problem solvers set the culture and have no learning mindset. Think about it.

Parting Thought on Problem Solving

Solving the problem is about applying the right minds, skills and tools to the problem. It is, in short, about being effective. Being effective starts with an understanding of what problem solving is NOT, continues with adopting the right mindset, and ends with a clear knowledge of what can get you into trouble as you proceed.

To borrow from Elwood P. Dowd: In this world you must be oh so smart or oh so effective. For years I thought the answer was smart, I now recommend effective.

You may quote me on that.

I encourage the reader to share experiences, debate these points, or simply to correct my assertions through the comments below.

Find Your Problem Solving Mindset

When it comes to problem solving, learning to define and flex your mindset can make all the difference.

In my prior post, linked here, I outlined some important notions of what problem solving isn’t and how to test for unproductive problem solving behaviors. In this one, I’ll go into a critical aspect of problem solving—the mindset.

One of the most important phrases I have encountered as a professional leader is “it’s not your job to solve the problem, it’s your job to ensure the problem gets solved.” This pithy comment encompasses the flexibility of approach that a great problem solver needs to embrace. Thus, your mindset—specifically how you relate to the problem at hand—is the key to problem solving.

Problem solving is an art. It’s an art whether you are a plumber or a mathematician, an artist or an analyst. In any field, effectively solving a problem requires a dynamic combination of drive and collaboration. While merely “having” drive or the ability to collaborate on some level comes naturally to most people, it’s the dynamism—ability to alter style—that is rarely innate. In almost every professional setting, the combination of these two qualities in the right doses at the right times is what determines a leader’s effectiveness as a problem solver.

This combination is what determines your problem solving mindset.

You control it.

Again, it’s about knowing where you place yourself in relation to the problem you are solving.

Why the mindset?

Management practitioners like you and me talk a lot about mindsets, skillsets, and toolsets. Unfortunately, we focus a lot on the latter two in our day to day coaching and leadership: Skillsets (financial, operational, and strategic acumen, for instance), and toolsets (how quickly I can deploy a financial model, a SMED exercise, or a Monte Carlo analysis) are easier to teach.

I’m going to reinforce the notion that, when solving problems in a professional setting, we need to think about Mindset, Skillset, and Toolset in exactly that order of priority. Mindset comes first. If your head isn’t “right,” it really doesn’t matter how skilled or equipped you are. You’ll be your own (and in some cases your organization’s) worst enemy.

Let’s get your head right.

Here’s my grid.

In order to establish how the mindset of an effective problem solver has to be flexible, I’m going to simplify problem solving mindsets into a grid based on Drive—how quickly we push ourselves and others to solve the problem—andCollaboration—how much we seek out and enable the specialized skills, assets, and knowledge bases of others.

With this grid in front of us, we can quickly outline four fundamental mindsets for problem solving that we all should be able to dynamically don.

I have numbered the quadrants of the grid for convenience (and, because of the way I’ve numbered them, the math geeks are probably having a fit right about now).

As I stated above, the mindset you assume relates to how you evaluate your own role in relation to a given problem. So, the dominant question you answer as you establish your mindset needs to be “what can I add vs. others, and therefore what is my role?” Notice that your skills are not on the grid. They are part of the evaluation, but they don’t really matter to the mindset.

So, how does it work?

“Thinker” (Quadrant 1) is the starting point:

I’m going to start with the Thinker mindset (Quadrant 1) on the lower left side, because it is where we really get our heads right. Quadrant 1 is the introvert’s dream and the extrovert’s nightmare, but the reality is that all good problem solving starts with a reasoned, independent reflection on the problem by all parties involved.

Thinker is where this happens. Based on that reasoned reflection and framing of the problem, you as the problem solver need to reflect on what your role is; and that leads us to the other quadrants in turn. Quadrant 1 is the jumping off point, and often is the problem solvers’ refuge during really tough moments.

Where to next?

Place yourself in Worker Bee mode (Quadrant 2–low drive, high collaboration) when your bandwidth is constrained or when you are part of a team but bring no specific skills to bear. All people (yes, even execs) will be in this quadrant at times. You play a specific role, and others are acknowledged as the driver. Practitioners of project management will see this quadrant as the “consulted” or “kept informed” role on a team; but I see it as more than that: It is ownership of a part of the problem and delivery of it. Owning a part of a problem is very different from being consulted (which is more akin to partial ownership of the whole problem). You are more than a listener, but less than a driver.

Place yourself in Champion mode (Quadrant 3–high drive, high collaboration) when you have access to resources that will enable others to be at their best. This is where the best executive problem solvers reside for most of their careers. They network, enable, unlock, and encourage. Not only do they ask questions and hold a high bar for the answer, but they also pave the way for others by providing knowledge, contacts, and organizational clout to drive to solution.

Place yourself in Warrior mode (Quadrant 4–high drive, low collaboration) when you are the expert and all people know it, or when extenuating circumstances exist (time pressure, low bar for quality, etc.). These occur. Keep in mind that your mindset in quadrant 4 can be fully supportive of a team that is filled with people in Champion and Worker Bee modes. This is ok. How many times has a single person owned the financial model for a complex transaction, but not been accountable for the transaction itself? Happens all the time. Own it.

Remember this, though: The first rule of problem solving is to know that you are ready to solve the problem. The key prerequisite of problem solving is you and others around you have spent enough time in Thinker mode (low/low) to ensure the problem is worth solving and that your skill will be deployed correctly.

By thinking about problem solving as a mindset, and by having discussions about what roles people will play for a given problem (what their mindsets need to be), you can create a more powerful approach to getting anything done. Your effectiveness and the effectiveness of your teams will be far greater than the standard practice of muddling through.

All this is very clean, easy, and academic in an article and on a matrix. It’s much messier in real life. The need for flexibility in drive and collaboration is, however, real.

Just asking yourself if you know your role and that of those around you is a sufficient and practical first step.

I’ll offer a few pitfalls to this approach in my next article.

Please consider sharing your tips to facilitating effective problem solving mindsets.

What Problem Solving Isn’t…

Watching out for some critically bad behaviors can improve your effectiveness as a problem solver.


This is the first of a few posts I’ll share on the topic of problem solving.

We in the professional ranks toss the concept of “problem solving” about like it’s a common sense concept. It isn’t. Problem solving is about being effective in moving forward with a potential solution to a given problem—regardless of scoring political, influence, or style points unrelated to the solution. It is with this focus on effectiveness that I’m posting on the topic.

Let me say up front that I lay no claim to being among the problem solving elite. That is for others to judge. I offer my thoughts as more of an experienced social observer and capability builder on the topic. In practice, problem solving is messy, like most other things not written in textbooks.

Countless negative mindsets and behaviors masquerade as good problem solving, and we all need to be on the lookout for them. That’s the topic of this post.

As someone who has interviewed hundreds of aspiring problem solvers and worked alongside some of the best (and possibly some of the worst) in the world, I have gleaned a few points of view on what problem solving is NOT. So, in the interest of going negative from the start, let’s explore a few of them.

Problem solving is NOT being merely smart. Many very smart people are very bad problem solvers. Why? Really smart people suffer from a couple of common flaws that, if they aren’t known and mitigated, can derail problem solving. First, many really smart people are naturally oriented toward finding an answer vs. a direction. They have to learn to think in terms of risk and opportunity vs. correct and incorrect. Second, many very smart people suffer from the “smartest guy in the room syndrome;” meaning they struggle to listen to others’ viewpoints.

Great problem solvers are flexible and incorporate a very broad number of viewpoints.

Problem solving is NOT merely having excellent energy and drive. Action-orientation is a virtue. Practical action-oriented problem solving is as well. However, some leaders confuse the drive for action with the drive for effective action. Being driven in a business setting is an excellent virtue if it is combined with sensitivity, structure, and at least some patience.

Too much drive with too little collaboration can lead to a bullying approach to problem solving. Combined with power, mere drive can lead to problem solving via fear, and to the closing off of channels of communication. Oddly, excess drive leads to a lack of listening, just like too much “smarts.”

The urge to do something is a good one if it’s managed. Great problem solvers manage it.

Problem solving is NOT problem finding. Problem finders, or mere whiners, are out of scope here. While issue identification can be a positive skill, too often leaders and their subordinates use it as a passive aggressive pseudo problem-solving surrogate. Those who are talented at lobbing quasi-professional bombs by identifying other people’s problems may score points in some organizations’ political games, but they aren’t problem solvers.

In most professional contexts, I’d estimate that problem identification is less than 5% of the effort required. Great problem solvers don’t congratulate themselves for being great at spotting issues.

Problem solving is NOT solving the wrong problem. We all have our own skills and tools to apply to a given problem. Always keep in mind the proverb “To a person with a hammer, all problems look like a nail.” It’s powerful. A very common problem solving failure springs from misapplied expertise. How often have you observed the process expert seeing every problem in terms of process, or the patent expert seeing every problem in terms of intellectual property, or the talent expert pointing only to talent? Often, I’ll bet.

Great problem solvers reflect on the definition and potential solutions for a problem before acting.

Problem solving is NOT a heroic pursuit.With all due respect to the proverbial mad genius problem solver who comes up with truly novel solution to a very tough problem, your run of the mill problem solver is more likely to be a structured thinker, clear communicator, and fantastic networker who may not even be the person in front of the group when the problem is solved.

Many of the world’s best problem solvers are unsung heroes.

I could go on about what problem solving is NOT, but I won’t. You probably get the picture. The question to ask when presented with a behavior or a contribution to your team that doesn’t feel on point is “yeah, but will it make us more effective?”

“He’s so smart/driven/insightful/savvy!”

“Yeah, but does he make us more effective?”

It’s a simple test.

Please consider sharing thoughts on barriers to effective problem solving from your own experience.