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The Leader’s 5-Step Process for Solving Any Problem

By Maxwell Leadership | June 27, 2023
The Leader’s 5-Step Process for Solving Any Problem

This blog post has been adapted from Dr. John Maxwell’s leadership resource, Developing the Leader Within You 2.0. John Maxwell has been one of the world’s foremost leadership and personal growth experts for more than 40 years, and this guidebook for leadership development contains invaluable insights. You can pick up a copy here.

Albert Einstein said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

Not everyone sees things this way. Some are presented with tough problems or hard choices and throw up their hands in frustration. But viewing a challenge as an obstacle, rather than an opportunity, does not prevent us from having the problem – it only affects our ability to solve it.

Any leader who can shift his or her thinking from Is there an answer? to There is always an answer to There must be a good answer has the potential to become not only a fantastic problem solver, but also a change agent for opportunity.

Not Problems, But Possibilities

Leadership author and speaker Glenn Llopis has written about the power of this problem-solving perspective. He quoted Karl Popper: “All life is problem solving.” Then he went on to say, “The best leaders are the best problem solvers. They have the patience to step back and see the problem at-hand through broadened observation… The most effective leaders approach problems through a lens of opportunity.”

So how can leaders look at problems through the lens of opportunity? Try these 5 perspective-shifting approaches:


Great leaders are rarely blindsided. Like boxers, they recognize that the punch that knocks them out is usually the one they didn’t see coming. For that reason they are always looking for signs and indicators that will give them insight into any potential problems ahead. Every problem is like the one faced by the trespasser at an Indiana farm who saw a sign on a fence post that said, “If you cross this field, you’d better do it in 9.8 seconds. The bull can do it in 10 seconds.”

Good leaders anticipate problems so they can position themselves and those who follow them for success. What potential problems do you see in your world, and what is your game plan to fix them when they happen? Downsides rarely have an upside unless you are ready for them on the front end.


Have you ever heard the saying “Assumption is the mother of mess-ups”? If assumptions create mess-ups in everyday life, they create trainwrecks in leadership. The place to start is by getting a clear picture of the problem you face. Financier and business titan J. P. Morgan asserted, “No problem can be solved until it is reduced to some simple form. The changing of a vague difficulty into a specific, concrete form is a very essential element in thinking.”

That process begins by identifying what constitutes a problem. Author Bobb Biehl defines a problem as “a situation that’s counter to your intentions or expectations.” So what must a leader do when they find themselves facing one of these counter-situations? They must follow the advice of author Max De Pree, who said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”


Questions are a vital resource for problem solving. Not only do they help leaders gather information and seek solutions, but they also enable us to understand what people think and feel before we lead them. Many leaders are too quick to talk and lead, and too slow to ask questions and listen.

Consider these clarifying questions next time you’re faced with difficulty:

  • Who knows the most about this problem?
  • Who knows what I need to know?
  • Who wants to tackle this problem?
  • Who needs to buy in, and how long will that take?


As you seek to solve problems, list as many solutions to a problem as possible. The more, the better. Keep in mind that seldom is there just one way to solve a problem. The more options the better, because problems continually shift and change. Leaders who don’t have backup solutions soon find themselves in trouble.

The truth is that big ideas don’t appear—they evolve. But that only happens when you are determined to explore ideas and look for more and better solutions.


One of the greatest dangers for a thoughtful person is to spend too much time on problem solving and too little time on solution implementing. Leaders who don’t or can’t follow through are in danger of thinking, Ready, aim, aim, aim… but never fire!

The solution is to develop a bias for action. Don’t think, Can I? Instead think, How can I? Then start moving forward. The moment you confront and act on a problem, you begin to solve it. If great inventors and explorers hadn’t taken tangible, deliberate steps forward, would they have made the contributions they’re known for? No! Their belief prompted action and their action created results. Ideas evolve as you move, and better solutions come into view as you move forward. Ultimately, you can’t wish or wait your way through difficulties. You must work your way through them.

How do great leaders improve? One way is by committing to always improving their leadership skills and surrounding themselves with like-minded people.

Maxwell Leadership is proud to present Day to Grow… a one-day leadership development conference in Orlando, Florida, on August 14th, featuring incredible speakers like John C. Maxwell, Atomic Habits author James Clear, Juliet Funt, and Ryan Leak. Ready to reserve your seat at Day to Grow? Click here to register.

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