Some leaders distinguish themselves not through status, charisma or access to resources but because they have genuinely and fully fallen in love with a problem.
They reluctantly step up to the task of leadership, not because they imagine themselves as bosses but because they find themselves surrounded by people who share their passion and enthusiasm for solving the problem. Crucially, as others with expertise step up as needed, they readily step aside when, based on the needs of the problem, another team member’s strengths are more central.
These leaders are not pure generalists, although often mistaken as such. They pursue their deep expertise, often across domains, to make new, surprising and valuable connections across areas too often seen in siloes.
Problem-led leaders aren’t interested in building fiefdoms but see contributions fluidly assembling and disassembling. Their leadership talent comes from finding the right talent and convincing others that their project offers the chance to be part of a breakthrough. Problem-led leaders’ reputation is often painstakingly built, over time, as a consequence of succeeding in tackling complex challenges that vex the organisation.
Don’t Let Problem-led Leadership Erode Into Excessive Task Focus
Yet, falling in love with problems can become a minefield if we fail to invest in building relationships early on. Psychological safety inoculates task conflict from becoming full-blown relationship conflict, where fear eclipses the willingness to share diverse views and opinions in pursuit of finding the best way forward. For problem-led leaders, apathy is a killer but often the product of carelessness and rushing too quickly to solutions early on.
Too often, in our rush to solve problems, problem-focused leadership erodes into a monomaniacal focus on getting things done. We’ve all met leaders who, in their relentless task focus, run roughshod over people and the organisation, often holding up their work ethic as an example for others to live up to.
The magic is in balancing task focus (getting things done) with people focus (inspiring, developing, and empowering others), recognising the need sometimes to go slow to go fast, and keeping the broader organisational needs in mind. I call it building sustainable change. It is about being efficient (doing things right) and effective (doing the right things).
The Power of Problem-led Leadership
Staying focused on solving the problem requires a deep insight into our weaknesses and surrounding ourselves with people who are good at what we are not so that we can focus on our strengths in creative problem-solving.
Leadership, in turn, becomes the task of identifying high-value ways others can contribute. This could be through providing diverse perspectives and expertise, spitballing ideas, inspiring reflection and self-observation and identifying limiting beliefs in you as a problem-led leader.
Problem-led leaders can use their love of solving the problem to practice self-management, asking themselves what the problem demands at this time so they can practice self-awareness, pause and choose a different approach.
It could be as simple as choosing not to send a slew of emails about your big project over the weekend (because solving it sustainably means both time with and time away from the problem), pausing to acknowledge a colleagueâ€™s effort or teaching a team member something new to help them elevate their contribution.
Crucially, keeping our focus on the problem, rather than being self-conscious, frees us to do our best work together with others. Being a problem-focused leader can be liberating if you genuinely embrace solving the problem on the broadest scale, i.e. without making yourself the linchpin in the middle but the conduit to others realising their genius.