How to Solve Problems Like a Leader


A leader as someone who can look at the mistakes and failures of their past to help make a better decision in the future. As a result, they are unlikely to make the same mistake twice, and when the same problem comes along, they are more likely to solve it properly. Let's look at problem solving.

What is Problem Solving?

Problem solving is a form of thinking, often considered to be the most complex of all intellectual functions that a person can have. Problem solving is defined as a higher-order cognitive skill and it occurs in an organism if it does not know how to proceed from a given state to achieve a desired goal. There are several types of problems that can be exceedingly difficult to solve, and require the skills of a great leader or problem solver to handle them. Here are a few examples:

  • Intransparency - This a problem where there is a lack of clarity of the situation. A good example of this is someone who owns a boat, but rarely is on the water, but now has to deal with a hurricane which they have never had to face before.
  • Polytely - This is where multiple goals must be achieved. A good example of this is a person who has a business report due that must not only show how to cut costs, but also to do it without firing anyone, while allowing revenue to increase for the company.
  • Complexity - This is a large number of items and decisions to take into consideration for the problem. An example of this is a situation where someone will be dealing with many complex factors at once, like a financial sheet, where they have to make it balance properly.
  • Dynamics - This is a problem with time considerations. A military leader who is facing the onslaught of the enemy in five minutes needs to devise a plan quickly.
Now that we know problem solving, how does it apply to leadership?
Problem Solving and Leadership

What makes problem solving so important to leadership? Well, the short answer is that without problem solving skills, a leader will not be able to solve the many problems they will face in their lifetime, from the mundane to the critical.

For the people that look up to that leader, their calmness under pressure, their ability to assess any situation, to know what will happen, and how their decision will affect the situation, is the key..

Problem solving is a lot like leadership; those who have it are both born with it and learn how to use it.

People may be born with a highly logical mind that allows them to assess situations quickly and determine the best course of action, but without the practice of using that in various situations, that skill can fade away. Like any talent, it must be honed and practiced to make it work properly.

Leaders often possess problem solving capabilities, but it is up to them to make those capabilities work properly. They need to be able to look at the problems they have faced in the past and to be able to use those experiences to figure out their current predicament.

For example, if a great military commander is on the high seas and he finds himself surrounded by three other ships, he has only a few options. He can flee, he can attack them one at a time, or he can use them against themselves. Now, say he has faced this situation once before and he attacked one at a time, only to nearly lose his ship before he fled. In this present situation, he can look at that past experience and realize that attacking one at a time is not the way to go. So, instead he uses his hopefully faster and more agile ship to go around the other ships and force them to fire at him, only to hit the ships of their fellow countrymen.

Therefore, by looking at the past situation, the military commander was able to know what not to do and reduce his three difficult choices to only two. This gave him much better odds.

Problem solving works like this. Thousands of years ago, as our species was first hunting big game, we probably chased after them as a group, only to have them outrun us. So, we learned from that and we decided to chase after game and send them towards other hunters, who could then take down the prey. Therefore, the problem solving worked by relying on past experiences to solve the problem.

This is how leadership and problem solving co-exist. A good leader learns from their mistakes and they use these experiences to solve future problems. Essentially, when you get right down to it, a leader is a problem solver.
Can Problem Solving be Taught?

The short answer to this is yes, it can. If it couldn't be taught then our species would be horribly behind in our development, or possibly extinct. You have to be able to teach others to problem solve, using your own experiences as a basis.

Now, this may sound familiar and it should: It is supervision.

Again, we see that supervision is associated with leadership, but not actually something leadership needs.

Also, people can be taught how to look at problems, how to assess them, and how to create the solutions that may be needed. School is an excellent example of this concept, where children are taught in math how to solve many different problems. In fact, tests in nearly every subject are completely dependent on problem solving.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Leadership and Supervision course?
Therefore, problem solving can indeed be taught and it can be taught to anyone. Of course, as with anything, some people are better at problem solving than others. An individual who has a very artistic mind may not do well with problem solving, while someone with a logical mind can solve a complex puzzle in minutes.
The Problem Solving Process

Understanding that problem solving can be taught, we can now endeavor to teach you how to problem solve, in a basic way, by looking at the steps needed to create a meaningful solution to a complex problem:
  1. You need to look at all the elements of the problem first and understand the forces that are affecting the situation. This could be looking at enemy forces coming over the hill, figuring out which of your running backs is open, or perhaps it is looking at the variables in a math question.
  2. Next, you need to understand the causes behind the problem. Why are those troops charging at us, what is the other team doing to stop our player, how do these variables play into the math question?
  3. Understand the roles of those with you, and those against you. This may not apply to math questions, but it certainly applies to sports and war, and as a result many great leaders are lauded in these two avenues for their ability to problem solve.
  4. Last, evaluate the ability of those on your side, and those on the other side to affect the situation. You may think a barrage of arrows will stop the troops coming at you, but if you fail to think that the other commander thought of that and has his archers already firing, you may end up on the losing end of a battle.

This process shows just how a leader will problem solve in a situation. When we look at leaders in the past, people are astounded by their ability to solve problems that many would deem to be nearly impossible to solve. As well, we often see them going up against the odds and winning, in no small part due to their problem solving abilities. Let's look at historical leaders and see how problem solving played a role in their legendary achievements.

  • Julius Caesar conquered a huge portion of Europe using his wits and the troops in his army with innovative methods.
  • Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world by using problem solving techniques, including building a huge bridge to transport siege equipment across, just in order to take a small island.
  • Boadicea defeated the Romans in London, despite being outnumbered, by using her knowledge of the terrain and her own problem solving skills, to her advantage.
  • Gandhi looked at the problem of British occupation in India and came up with his own solution that would work given the dominance of the British: Non-violent resistance. Looking at the number of his people versus the number of the British, it was the clear solution.
  • Epicurus routinely used problem solving to look at the world around him and devise solutions as to why the world is the way it is.
  • Horatio Nelson's life was based on problem solving, overcoming the odds, and defeating the enemy with new and innovative methods.
Your Point Being?

When we look at the world of problem solving, it is clear to see why it is an important leadership characteristic. When there is a problem that needs to be solved, it is not up to the followers to find the solution, although a good leader will get their input on the matter. It is up to the leader to look at the problem, the information they have been provided, and be able to find a solution to it, using whatever information they have at their disposal.

Of course, there is a chance that the leader may choose the wrong solution, but a leader knows this is a blessing in disguise, because every wrong choice means a new learning experience and making sure that the same wrong choice does not happen again.
How to Plan Like a Leader

Because planning is very important in problem solving, we also need to discuss planning here as well

Planning is a core requirement for both leaders and supervisors.
Why is it so Important?

Well, think of what would have happened if the Allies had not done any planning before launching troops to Normandy on D-Day? What would have happened if so many military commanders, sports heroes, and more had not taken the time to look at a situation and plan how to best manage the situation?

This emphasizes the importance of planning. It means knowing the situation you are in, figuring out a way to get through it, and then, implementing that solution. Writers call it a plot outline, computer programmers call it a flowchart, leaders call it destiny or their grand plan, but no matter what, they all have the ability to plan to solve problems.

There may be problems that are immediate, like how to deal with an irate subordinate, or they may be more long term, like how to deal with climate change. It could be something personal for the leader, like planning their own march into the history books, or it may be a plan for someone else. Boadicea burned London down in the First Century, A.D. because Roman soldiers killed her husband and raped her daughters. She planned the attack and she executed it for personal reasons, but didn't do it alone.

Can You Lead Without Planning?

Some people believe that it is possible to lead people without planning a course of action. There are some who can do this, but they are not leaders, they are lucky. Those that are lucky look like great leaders because of the luck, but eventually luck catches up with them and turns from good to bad.

Planning is core to leadership. Even supervision needs planning. When a supervisor is showing someone how to work on a new piece of machinery, they need a plan of action to help them through the steps. They need to be able to start from the basics and progress through the difficult parts to teach the employee what they need to know about the machinery. They cannot just show them what it does and walk away.

Leaders need to plan because it shows those around them that not only do they calmly assess situations in looking for the best way out, but they do not simply go blindly into a situation, which in terms of war, can have disastrous consequences. When a leader shows that they have concern for their troops, the troops will follow them to Hell and back again.

A leader without a plan is like someone trying to run a marathon without their shoelaces tied. They may be able to go a few steps, but they will never reach their goal and they most likely will just fall flat on their face.

How Do Leaders Plan?

Essentially, they plan like anyone else, they just do a much better job of it. The important thing that leaders do when they plan is that they look at the entire situation and then they determine the best course of action. Does this sound a lot like problem solving? It should, because as we stated earlier, it is an integral part of planning.

Here are some of the key things leaders do when they plan a course of action for themselves, and those around them:

    • They look at the situation as a whole before they ever break it down to see the integral parts of the problem or goal.
    • They talk to those around them to get their opinions. They may not follow the opinions, but a good leader always tries to understand what their followers and advisors think.
    • They use their own 'gut feeling'. One of the most important things a leader has at their disposal is a gut feeling. This is their intuition and when a leader is planning a course of action, they always listen to it. If they have an uneasy feeling about a situation, they will not take that course of action and they will readjust their plan. For a leader, a gut feeling is one of their greatest tools.
    • They look at the end result that they want to achieve and the situation that they are in at that time. Afterwards, they plan how to get from point A to point B in the best manner.
    • Once they have decided on a plan, they go through with that plan and they do not waver from it. If you remember from Lesson One, we learned that sticking to your guns was a huge part of being a leader, and if a leader wants people to follow them, they should not flip-flop.

Leaders will plan in different ways, but the end result will always be the same. Either they will succeed, and then they will know that the plan they just implemented was the best for the job. Or they will fail, and they will then use that experience to determine how best to proceed when faced with the same situation in the future.

Planning for the Best

Naturally, when leaders plan, they are planning for the best outcome. However, any good leader knows that they need to not only plan for the best, but to plan for the worst, as well.

Chance Favors the Prepared

The above statement is a good way to look at how leaders think. They leave nothing to chance and they plan out every scenario that they can, so they will have the desired result. This then comes down to the next statement:

Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

We all hope for the best, but very few of us plan for the worst. More often than not, people will hope the leaders around them will take care of that, and that is what separates leaders from the rest of the people. They prepare for the worst because they know that while they hope for the best, there is no guarantee that it will happen. When you don't get the best result, you don't want to be caught off guard.

Look at any great commander, or any of the leaders that we mentioned in Lesson Two.
Do you think Churchill simply hoped the Nazis would lose? Or do you think that he may have been also planning for a land battle within Britain against the Nazis?

Do you think that Alexander the Great simply hoped he would conquer Babylon? Or do you think he had a plan in store for what to do if he lost?

The point is that a leader has to plan for the future and they have to plan for the best, as well as the worst outcome. This means that a leader does not only have one plan of action in their head, they have dozens, or more. Military commanders in the past had to plan their attack, and, at the same time, plan what to do if they were flanked by the enemy's cavalry. In addition, they also had to plan what to do if the enemy had forces hidden in reserve.

To be a great leader, you need to be able to problem solve. To be able to problem solve, you need to be able to plan.