Answer These 3 Questions to Be a Better Problem Solver and Leader

UPDATED: November 19, 2019
PUBLISHED: November 11, 2019
solving problems

Over my years, I’ve read a number of books that I would say have changed my life, for a variety of different reasons. One of those is The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, which I recommend wholeheartedly.

The first pages of the book had a profound effect on me. They shook me out of my innate desire for life to be easy, for things to always go my way. Peck wrote:

Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it has been accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy!

It’s true that life is difficult for everyone. And if life is tough for individuals, its difficulty is multiplied for leaders. Individuals can think me, but leaders must think we. Thinking we means other people are included, and that means their problems are also yours to deal with.

Remember, as Peck told us, life isn’t supposed to be easy. So I want you to consider one of the positive aspects of the many troubles and inconveniences you will face on a day-to-day basis. Because I believe they represent an opportunity for you to step up and gain credibility in the quickest way as a leader. My CEO, Mark Cole, has reminded me that a pragmatist takes things that others see as problems or distractions and turns them into opportunities. Problems hold potential benefits: They introduce us to ourselves, to others and to opportunities.

Whether you want to receive an opportunity to lead for the first time or you already have leadership responsibilities and desire to make an impact, problem solving affords you unique opportunities. Grow in this area by answering the following three questions.

1. What does the way I handle problems say about me?

How you see problems shapes your attitude and your leadership. Do you see them as opportunities to use your leadership for the betterment of your team and organization? Or are they inconveniences that simply ruin your plans and discourage you?

You can change your mindset when it comes to problems and solving them. Make a list of past problems that have led to lessons or opportunities. Now make the conscious decision to look for positives in whatever problems arise from this day forward.

2. How can I enlist others as problem solvers?

Some time ago, I asked a friend about the character of an acquaintance of ours whom neither of us knew very well. He told me that he couldn’t comment on the man’s character, because he had never seem him handle adversity. How true, I thought. You can learn a lot about yourself by the way you handle problems, but you can learn just as much about others by the way they react. Some people will make matters worse. Some people become magnets for problems. Others give up. The people you should hold closest are those who will turn problems into stepping stones for success. The difficulties you face create chances for you to sort out who is who.

Starting this week, when some new trouble arises, begin using questions to learn more about the members of your team. Gather information, brainstorm ideas and find multiple solutions. Here are a few questions to help you get started:

  • When did the problem begin?
  • Where did it begin?
  • Who was the first to notice it?
  • What are several possible causes for it?
  • What is the impact of the problem? Who is affected?
  • What other possible negative consequences could it have?
  • Is this problem part of a bigger problem? If so, how?
  • Who has dealt with this kind of problem successfully?
  • What are several possible approaches to solving it?
  • What kind of time, expertise and resources will be needed for these solutions?
  • Will people buy into these solutions?
  • How long will each of these solutions take to implement?
  • How might these solutions give us future advantages?
  • What lessons can be learned from all of this?

3. What future opportunities are presenting themselves in current problems?

Pick one big problem that you are currently working on. As you seek solutions, brainstorm as many creative opportunities as possible that could be associated with the problem and solution. Allow these thoughts to shape the problem-solving process, because if you are able to use a problem to actually move your team or organization farther ahead, you will have performed one of the most difficult leadership tasks of all: You will have become a change agent.

Related: How to Solve Problems Effectively and Ethically

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by @jopanuwatd / Twenty20

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.