Leaders Should Welcome Unsolved Problems

“Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.”

Legions of leaders subscribe to this mantra, and often they learned it from a leader they once reported to. In cultures where action is prized, leaders don’t even have to say it. Everyone knows it’s solutions, not problems, they are supposed to be talking about.

What better way to create personal accountability, right? You think that by delegating problem-solving, direct reports will learn to stop aimless complaining and take decisive action to control circumstances.5161985

Here’s the downside. Today’s organizations are complex systems, plunked in the middle of a complex world. We recognize that change is volatile and outcomes unpredictable. In a world of such complexity, leaders can’t and shouldn’t be expected to go it alone.  Keagen and Lahey, researchers in adult mental development, have identified the trajectory of leaders’ growing mental capacity. In Immunity to Change (2009, Harvard Business Press) they explain the journey from the socialized mind, through the self-authoring mind to the higher functioning self-transforming mind.

This bring-me-solutions philosophy is an outdated attempt to develop leaders from the first stage to the second. When you delegate problem-solving, you are hoping to shift followers from seeking your direction to independence. You want your direct reports to learn to lead and to read their own compass – signs of the self-authoring mind.

Yet this time-worn leadership approach may be the undoing of those who need to develop to the next level. The self-transforming mind has the ability to stand aside its own limited perspective and look AT it, not just through it. Doing this requires a curiousity, a humility, and an openness to other’s ideas. It requires leaders to be vulnerable, and to admit to each other that they don’t have all the answers.  All of which is closed down with the bring-me-only-solutions stance.

Here’s a new mantra for you:  “Bring me your challenges and we’ll talk about them.”

In this way, you express an interest in people’s work and still hold a position against whining. You encourage staff to admit what they don’t know. You teach leaders to be receptive to new ideas. You suggest that we all need others’ perspectives to make sense of situations. You build a norm that says, yes, we need to take action, but let’s move forward together.

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