Leaders Don't Have Problems Only Challenges

Leadership is not a position or a title, it is action and example.
Written by Chris Schafer on Mar 22, 2018
Leaders Don't Have Problems Only Challenges

Jim entered the main conference room and closed the door behind him. The tension was palatable and the air stuffy as every seat was occupied at the 40-foot mahogany table. Quickly scanning the members of the room Jim ensured that all the key players were in attendance. For a brief second all eyes converged on him, then submissively everyone looked away. Calling the meeting was not Jim's first thought when he heard the news, but times like these required a different approach. Being personal and more relaxed was not going to work this time. Packets of paper had been laid on the table outlining significant changes that had to be conveyed without interpretation. Everyone knew it was bad. The legal team was also attending the meeting along with members of HR. 

Jim had the respect and trust of those around him. When Jim received a project, he talked it over with his superiors to make sure he understood what was being asked of him. Then he gave a clear statement about what needed to be accomplished to his team. After work began Jim asked questions to understand the obstacles his team faced and listened without interrupting. Jim was an excellent delegator of tasks and gave his people autonomy to take action within guidelines. Left and right limits of engagement as he would put it referring back to his days in the military. He leveraged resources they needed but couldn't get themselves and allowed his senior managers to do their best work on a daily basis. All this created a positive ROI for every project over the last 36 months for his division. To show his appreciation, Jim personally delivered each bonus check along with a congratulations card handwritten by himself.

Standing at the double doors still holding onto the handles behind his back, he paused for a second. He reminded himself to remain in the moment not letting his anger of the past 48 hours influence the statement that was about to deliver. He wondered if things would ever be the same. Jim had a responsibility to address the issue and retain the culture that created the positive outcomes. This was the real issue Jim faced as a leader.

Pick any act, criminal, immoral, or destructive and insert it into the above story. It doesn't matter and here's why. Whatever stupid thing that someone did or didn't do that required the meeting is not a problem it's an opportunity. An opportunity to do the right thing morally and legally. Generally, these character traits are taught in leadership 101 however failure at this level is not uncommon. They are the reason for increasing laws and regulations imposed upon organizations and industries like the Sarbanes and Oxley Act or SOX Act. This is the easy part so let's get beyond leadership 101.

Facing problems is part of the job description of being a leader. Leaders have challenges which will follow problems. These challenges and how they are handled determines the real success of the leader. What will challenge any leader are questions that don't have an immediate, measurable answer. We can only assume the impact on morale, culture, and the ability to remain agile and innovative after implementing a corrective action.

With the authority and power to fire, hire, move, or marginalize an employee, managing problems become considerably more efficient and often more damaging without learned leadership. The saying goes if the only tool you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail. 

Many times without understanding the underlying core issues creating problems many leaders or managers default to the hammer and nail approach to problem-solving. Reinforcing this method of problem-solving are many factors like that of organizational culture, an unwillingness to take the time to understand the problem, fear, and other ego-driven reasons. 

A checklist in these situations is less than useful because breaking down all problems to a mathematical equation eliminates heuristics. If x then y overtakes the process of authentic learning and the relationship between leader and employee becomes robotic, and trust is lost. Without trust, the leader has no respect and is virtually dead. Some managers and leaders will argue that it's better to be feared than to be loved which is a tandem to every problem is a nail situation. To be fair to Machiavelli here is the lead-in to the better to be feared than to be loved statement.

"Nevertheless, he ought to be slow to believe and to act, nor should he himself show fear, but proceed in a temperate manner with prudence and humanity, so that too much confidence may not make him incautious and too much distrust render him intolerable." 

In essence, authority must be established, but anyone can use a hammer. Leaders are in the people business, and people rarely respond to the same set of steps and checklist to creating positive ROI where 1 + 1 equals 3. Problems are a leaders job, and the right tools make for good order and efficient process of issues. We at SOLIDRed Concepts suggest that using tools to instill performance is needed but caution in the use of steps to handling leadership challenges. Instead, we recommend that because people are the heart of every organization that leaders use the following principles to handle challenges: 

Gain Situational Awareness:

Identify the culture of each team or group.

Understand who the informal leaders are from each team and group.

Identify friction points between teams and groups. 

Understanding the habits of individuals teams or division will lead to many insights to issues. Many times this may lead back to one charismatic individual or a higher level leader within the larger organization using a hammer for every problem. Knowing the real leaders within the organization that have the knowledge and brain trust of processes and procedures will help to identify ego's that may get out of line and be a detriment to the organization. Finding the single point of failure between groups will increase comprehension of how failure happens.  

Decide to Act:

Understand Issues both at the ground level and at higher levels. 

Reinforce the bigger mission.

Demonstrate support.

No leader leads effectively from a distance. Get down into the trenches with the troops to find out what is going well and what is not and take note of each.  Understand what the bigger picture is and how to help upper leadership by understanding the mission and desired end state. Ensure that each group realizes that they are part of a larger organization and that others are counting on their performance to include the success of the company as a whole. Remember to get the equipment tools and training needed to ensure that performance remains at a high level. 

Take Action:

Plan the execution and execute the plan.

Continue to measure performance.

Watch for second and third order of effects. 

Deviating from the plan because of a good idea that is touted to make things better merely creates mission creep. Take these good ideas and put them in a pile of considerations for possible follow-on improvements. Reduce unplanned work by eliminating new options while in the execution phase. Only changes that directly impact the desired end state should be done and after careful deliberation of its perceived impact. Stay the course. 

Don't wait to measure performance instead bake them into the plan. We call this the AAR (After Action Review) in the military. It's a quick way to keep everyone focused on what can be improved upon immediately to help with mission success and what is succeeding. AAR's happen often and quickly. No one judges others observations, and everyone takes note of deficiencies and how to fix them before the next engagement.  

After the plan is executed, it's vital to have a system to monitor the effects beyond the desired one after launch. For every action, there will be several other activities that will be impacted that may not have been considered. Capacity in efficiency may create a bottleneck in another part of the process. Success with one product may increase or decrease demand for another, and your targeted customer segment may not align with the analysis. It's essential to understand these effects and how they will impact the people working on them. 

From here the cycle returns to Gain Situational Awareness. 

In closing

The common thread for all the principals (Gain Situational Awareness, Decide to Act, and Take Action) is employee engagement.  The problem that Jim faced is relatively black and white and corrected with the right authority to take action. The challenge resides in the gray area of coordinating the microcultures of employees with groups of differing personalities, skill sets, politics, and egos that ensures continued success for all involved. 


Photos courtesy of author

By Chris Schafer

Chris is a 25+ year U.S. Army retired veteran and spent much of his military career on 3rd Special Forces Operational Detachments Alpha (ODA) teams. His career includes many deployments leading ODA teams advising and training people from all over the world. Chris earned a dual Master’s Degree in Business and Project management and co-authored Intrepid Professionals: How Principals from the Military Mindset Build Extraordinary Leaders, Teams, and Businesses. Chris is the Chief Executive of Military Affairs for SOLIDRed Concepts.