February 8

Leadership – Problem solver or problem creator?

Stewardship of Talent


This post was originally posted on ChristianStewardshipCoaching.com July 1, 2014.

I had a surprising realization the other day. I'm a leader with 5 direct reports and almost 60 people reporting to me through those direct reports. In a very real way my job, 100% of the time, is to make sure that those people have the chance to succeed. My success is only determined by theirs.  This wasn't the surprise, this is actually a guiding principle that I have for leadership. No. The surprise was that much of the time, my job wasn't to solve problems for people, it was to create them. 

Now wait a minute...

Now wait a minute that seems to be counter to the idea of servant leadership and working to help others succeed, but it really isn’t. The key is all in how you define the word “help.”

Help to many people means taking care of problems and as a leader that’s often true. One of your jobs as a leader is to smooth out problems for those that are in your area, to create an environment, culture, and workplace that allows them to do their work well and easily. However, sometimes to do this requires creating a problem for people.

Let me explain.

Let me explain what I mean with a story not directly related to my work. I was recently asked for some advice about how someone could best help their daughter and her husband. They had gotten themselves into some serious financial problems including a $90,000 debt to the IRS (cue dramatic music). The dad asking me for the advice was seriously considering borrowing $90,000 against his house to just pay of the debt and allow them to pay him back over time with less interest than the IRS would charge.

When we talked we had to talk about the possible downsides.

One, what happens if they couldn’t pay him back or didn’t pay him back in the time or way he wanted?

Two, the potential for this to change the relationship between him and his daughter.

Three, the possibility that it would change the relationship between both him and his son-in-law and the daughter and her husband.

Four, well you get the point there are lot's of ways things don't work out.

The truth is

The truth is this would change and in many ways put at risk the relationship he had with them by changing him from the father and father-in-law to the bank. This change in relationship is honestly more of an issue than the financial risk or risk to the house caused by the debt on his house. Now why would this help of paying off the IRS debt be a problem? Mainly because it takes the problem that the couple has and takes it from them. The problem moves over to the parents. It doesn’t solve the problem it simply moves it over to the parents.

Truth is if the parents want to help the daughter and son-in-law they can help them by walking beside them, giving advice, maybe even matching them dollar for dollar as they pay down the debt. Paying it off by transferring it to their house is simply defining help wrong.

In leadership

In leadership, we often find ourselves in difficult situations like this. Places where it would be so simple to move the problem that an employee has from them to us or to someone else. This is often the easiest and quickest fix for a problem but doesn't really fix the problem it just moves it and that does no one any good.

In fact sometimes as a leader our job isn't only to not fix a problem sometimes we need to go even further and actually create a problem for someone. Yes that’s right sometimes we need to actually make sure that someone who doesn't have a problem has one. This usually happens when you have a “rock star” employee that also has a bad attitude or when an employee has been allowed to be incompetent for so long that sanctioned incompetence has been allowed to take effect. In both of these cases these employees have often lasted long periods of time by avoiding having any problems of their own. Then as a manager your job is often to make sure that a problem or two comes home to roost where the real responsibility lies, with those employees. In these cases the employee has usually managed to avoid having any problems but needs to have some. Then the employee can finally make a decision, a decision to improve their attitude, improve their performance, or leave to find other employment.

Now don’t get me wrong I don’t think a leader should create problems for employees just for the fun of it. Nor do I think that a leader should routinely create problems for employees. In fact, they should serve their employees well by truly helping them as often as possible in as many ways as possible. However, there are times when a leader needs to either create a problem for an employee or make sure that the problems that they have are owned by them.

Some Resources 

I make a commission for purchases made through the following link.

Hundred Percenters: Challenge Your Employees to Give It Their All, and They'll Give You Even More, Second Edition especially chapter 2 about creating accountability with constructive feedback and chapter 4 about Stopping de-motivating and starting to motivate.

Both QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life and Flipping the Switch: Unleash the Power of Personal Accountability Using the QBQ! which are excellent reads for both managers and employees about personal accountability and why it matters almost more than anything else in success.

Hiring for Attitude: A Revolutionary Approach to Recruiting and Selecting People with Both Tremendous Skills and Superb Attitude which explains how behavior and attitude is more important than skill when you are hiring and then goes on to explain how to structure an interview to elicit information about attitude successfully.  This book totally restructured how I interview.

First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently which is a research based leadership book about effective management and leadership.  The section on The Art of Tough Love was especially relevant to this post.

Lastly Boundaries for Leaders: Results, Relationships, and Being Ridiculously in Charge.  This book by Dr. Henry Cloud explains how effective leadership is in part done by setting appropriate boundaries with staff.

What do you think, do you believe that a leader should sometimes create problems for their employees rather than solve them?

About the author 


Helping people to be better Stewards of God's gifts. Because Stewardship is about more than money.

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