One of the most difficult and interesting moments of leadership, especially early in our career, is that moment when we realize that a problem or situation has no answer. That’s right, no answer—no correct answer.
The years of work that we’ve put in learning strategy, finance, operations, organizational processes and figuring out technology is virtually useless in this instance. Now, I’m not talking about a problem characterized by extreme, far-out scenarios—like what to do when you encounter zombies—nor am I talking about that algebraic problem where two trains are going in opposite directions at different speeds and you need to find when they will cross. Both problems seem unsolvable when presented during a high-stress situation.
In trying to solve many of these problems that cannot be solved, we conclude that we are either very smart or very inept. Even worse is when we don’t recognize that some problems are unsolvable, and as a result, tend to generate solutions that in turn create more problems.
Ultimately, it’s our ability to commit to a lifelong journey of becoming purposeful that allows us to effectively balance the day-to-day dilemmas—and unsolvable problems—that we’re faced with as leaders.
Leadership isn’t about problem solving
Becoming a leader is a process that takes time, one experience after another, learning the differences and nuances between types of problems and situations. It’s also a process of learning whether the real problem is in something that you observe or is something in your mind.
Part of becoming is learning that not every problem needs to be solved. I know, heresy. Part of becoming may be that leaders don’t solve problems; they achieve goals. Part of becoming may be that leadership cannot be taught, but must be learned.
You can begin becoming a leader at a young age. Some people are leaders as a Boy Scout or Girl Scout. Some lead academic clubs. Some go on to lead Fortune 1000 organizations or run their own nonprofit. No matter how you slice it, leadership follows a sequence that generally starts with learning how to set goals for yourself and achieving them with some sort of discipline.
When we can demonstrate reliably repeating this process, next, we move to managing a small group or team around a set of standards. Can you keep them together and help them achieve their standards or goals?
Then, we might progress into a situation where we have no expertise and we are asked to help a different group of people achieve something; maybe we do this with less than ideal circumstances—in a tight timeline with little people or money resources. Then, we’re perhaps leading a function or a division. This sequence has a lot of common elements but we each experience it differently.
And in the process, we usually figure out something each time—we progress. We progress until we finally reach that problem or situation where there is no answer. There is no solution. We go from being successful to feeling like a fraud in moments.
And we take the usual route that has worked since we were in junior high school, we go to our teacher (or boss) for tutoring. But they can’t seem to help, either. The very people that we depend on can’t assist us. We have a problem and there is no help desk. The tendency is to think that someone got the wiring of the problem wrong. The tendency is to always see the problem as “out there,” in the world around us.
Yes, we are a part of the problem
Becoming a leader is the process of learning how to think about yourself as being part of the problem—in fact, part of every problem we face. It’s a process of learning how you might have inadvertently or unintentionally set in motion something that days, weeks, months, and sometimes years later comes back to confound you.
Part of becoming a leader is learning that some problems are dilemmas. You can’t solve a dilemma—you must manage it by finding middle ground. Some problems or situations require you to put your character on stage to feel the pain of others and model the way forward.
While you can learn some tools, tricks and general principles for how to “be” a leader, you won’t become an effective leader until you practice showing others the way as a matter of character and presence, repeatedly. Doing it once is not enough.
Doing it 500 times and getting feedback and improving as you go is better—and likely still not enough. Sometimes, the problem is in how you see things and believe how things work. And sometimes, the problem cannot be solved, and you lead from your most vulnerable place— showing others the way with your character and your maturity as a leader.
You will stumble—we all do.
Along the way, we are learning: about strategy, finance, performance management, operations and logistics; how to scale from small teams to large teams to functions to divisions to companies; and how to set goals and engage others. We are learning how to achieve, and how to decide.
The mind is capable of some amazing calculations, but can it calculate that you are the cause of the problem? Can it calculate that your presence, your ability to stand in the pain of a situation and give others hope and inspiration is what needs to happen, when all you really want to do is retreat into your office?
Sometimes, leadership is believing that you can get others to believe in themselves. Sometimes, leadership is giving up your power to others so that they can lead. And sometimes, leadership is knowing how to blend your voice and your power with others to enable a collective achievement.
Yes, leadership is about knowing and certainly about doing. But the most important and time-consuming journey to leadership is being and the path to becoming.