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The Do’s and Don’ts of Problem-Solving for Effective Leadership

By Maxwell Leadership | March 26, 2024
The Do’s and Don’ts of Problem-Solving for Effective Leadership

Benjamin Franklin is famously quoted as saying, “[I]n this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” He wasn’t the first to use this phrase, and of course, he wouldn’t be the last, but he was right – it seems the only immutable facts of life are its termination and its taxation.

Or rather, he was nearly right. One more thing seems to be a given in this world: problems.

Effective Leadership Means Effective Problem-Solving

If you’re living, you’ve got problems – and if you’re in leadership, you’ve got more problems, because of all the people you lead (who are living, so they’ve got problems). And if you don’t want to make those problems worse – and instead, turn them into opportunities to make your leadership and your people better at what you do – then these do’s and don’ts will prove helpful.


Among those who remember him, Bruce Ismay is often given somewhat of an unfair shake. He was the chairman of the White Star Line, the parent company of the RMS Titanic, when the ship tragically sank in 1912. On the ship, he helped inform hundreds of guests of the danger as it was unfolding and led many of them to safety on lifeboats. But before the ship ever set sail, it was Ismay’s decision to reduce the number of lifeboats on board from 48 to 16 – a decision that cost many their lives that day. We shouldn’t forget Ismay’s heroism, as he stayed on the boat as long as he could. However, if we learn anything from his story, it’s that problems shouldn’t be underestimated.

But on the other hand, it doesn’t help anyone to blow a problem out of proportion. Cy Young was one of the greatest pitchers in major league baseball. After his career was over, he commented on the tendencies of managers to take their starters out of the game at the slightest hint of trouble. He observed, “In our day when a pitcher got into trouble in a game, instead of taking him out, our manager would leave him in and tell him to pitch his way out of trouble.” Sometimes the problem is not as big a problem as we anticipate, and by tackling it, we shrink it down in size.


As leaders we love to err on the side of caution, but effective problem-solvers walk a finer line than that. If you shouldn’t underestimate or overestimate a problem, that leaves you with one option: see it for what it is and tackle it head-on. How do you do that? By evaluating the problem.

First, ask yourself, What is the issue? If someone says the moon is a hundred miles from Earth, no big deal – let it go. Unless you’re an astrophysicist, it doesn’t matter. If someone is about to eat food that is poisoned, deal with it immediately. You have to adjust to the size and weight of the issue. That may be hard, especially for type-A personalities. Keep perspective – if you find yourself getting worked up, ask yourself, “Does this really matter?”

Then, ask, Who is involved? Often problems are problems because of the people in the middle of them. Some are like Charlie Brown in the classic Peanuts television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. When he can’t seem to get into the Christmas spirit, Linus tells him, “You’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.”


Patience is a virtue in problem-solving if you are at the same time doing all that you can to fix the situation. It is not a virtue if you are waiting, hoping that the problem will solve itself or just go away.

Problems demand that we pay them attention. Why? Because left alone they almost always get worse. Nina DiSesa, who led the ad agency McCann Erickson in the late 90s, observed, “When you step into a turnaround situation, you can safely assume four things: morale is low, fear is high, the good people are halfway out the door, and the slackers are hiding.” Those things won’t improve on their own. They require intentional problem solving and active leadership.


If we’re leading people (and we must be if, in fact, we’re leaders), we must communicate about our problem to the people whom it will affect. We owe them that. Besides, the solution often lies in receiving help from someone else who is able to help us solve it.

Lack of communication and poor communication not only prevent us from solving problems, they can also create problems of their own. Bernd Pischetsrieder, former chairman of Volkswagen, said,

“I do know that the principal conflicts I have experienced have always had one simple cause: miscommunication. Either I didn’t understand what other people wanted, or they didn’t understand what I wanted. These conflicts were caused by a lack of communication and not just merely misunderstanding someone’s words, but also misunderstanding a person’s intentions and the background from which someone has formed an opinion.”

No matter whether it involves family, friends, employees, or teammates, when you are facing problems, it’s crucial that you all get on the same page and work on it together.


Not only do problems not solve themselves, but we can actually make them worse by how we respond to them. Problems are like fires, and every one of your people carries two buckets: one filled with water, and one with gasoline. When you come across a problem, you can use the bucket of water to try to put the fire out. Or you can pour gasoline on it and make it explode. Same problem, two different results based on our actions.

Taking a potentially volatile situation and making it worse is only one way of aggravating a problem. We can also make problems worse when we respond to them poorly. Some of the ways we can do that include:

  • Losing our perspective
  • Giving up important priorities and values
  • Losing our sense of humor
  • Feeling sorry for ourselves
  • Blaming others for our situation

Instead, we need to try to remain positive. Author Norman Vincent Peale asserted, “Positive thinking is how you think about a problem. Enthusiasm is how you feel about a problem. The two together determine what you do about a problem.”


Appreciating a problem is counterintuitive for many people. Most people see a problem as, well, a problem – it’s a nuisance to be avoided. However, if we have the right attitude and appreciate the problem, not only will we work harder to solve it, but we will also learn and grow from it. Problems always bring opportunities, and opportunities always bring problems. The two go hand in hand. If we can learn to appreciate that truth, we have a real advantage in life. 

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