• Ninam Bantawa

Solving Problems Through Effective Leadership

Updated: Apr 18

“To practice leadership, you need to accept that you are in the business of generating chaos, confusion, and conflict.” - Ronald A. Heifetz

The whole world is filled with problems to be solved. Whether your toenail needs to be clipped or a spacecraft needs to be built with the latest technology with the right talents within a specific timeframe. If looked through a different lens, there may be problem types that could be subjective or objective, and the solutions could be ethical or unethical. The correct approach, well, that is a topic for another day.

What we will be focusing on is the problem itself and how it can be fixed. With the world being in a perfect equilibrium and utopia, there wouldn’t be a call for leadership. It’s a no-brainer.

As professor Ronald Heifetz points out, there are two types of problems in this world.

  1. Technical problems - Problems that can be solved by an expert or an authority; not to be confused with leadership

  2. Adaptive problems - Problems that are ambiguous and often require new learnings; requires leadership to be solved

More elaboration on that here.

That’s why we have leaders. However, we also know that not all the adaptive problems get solved as smoothly as we wanted or worst of all, they don't get solved at all!

The chief culprit here is our misdiagnosis of the problem itself on our part.

Few examples:

  • We utilise authority and technical expertise to try to solve adaptive problems

  • We get too bogged down into the granularity of the problem that we don’t see the bigger picture

  • We get overwhelmed by it, i.e. it is bigger than we initially thought

  • Our judgement gets blinded by our emotions, i.e. results of conflicts of interests with adjacent leaders or stakeholders

  • Trying to come up with a perfect solution all by yourself; like in comic books, becoming a superhero for personal gain and prestige

So, is there a solution?

Yes, there might be a solution if you look for it!

1. See the bigger picture

2. Identify the actual work to be accomplished

3. Take actions to solve the problem

1. See the bigger picture

Image by TravelCoffeeBook from Pixabay

Everybody knows this fact. Matter of fact, everybody will say this in job interviews or when talking to each other about how amazing they are in finding faults and solving problems. And yet, we rarely do it. We don’t take a breather and step back. We get amongst the theatrics of the situation rather than staying afar and watching the play happen from a balcony. When you are on the stage itself, you only see the people around you. However, from the balcony, every coordination and incoordination amongst groups is visible. The emotional detachment is necessary so almost a stoic approach is necessary here.

Why is emotional detachment necessary? Our subjective views will not help solve the objective issues we face.

An example:

The world around us is how we perceive it to be.

Let's assume we are thinking of buying a white Mercedes E Class Saloon. All of a sudden we start seeing them everywhere. The universe wants us to have it! Now we really want one. However, we are also aware of the implications of buying a car of that range. That is the problem.

This is not because the cars weren't there in the first place, rather because we wanted to see them! It is our perceived judgement that engenders the sight of that particular thing we wish to have.

Let’s take a step back and think through this.

Are there similar alternatives to that car we want? What do I think of those models in terms of design? Do they do the same job as the car I’m trying to get? Will I be saving money? Does saving money with an alternative car equate to the added safety net that I require financially going forward? Are my wants superseding my needs?

So on and so forth.

You’ll find new answers because your perspective just got wider. Now it's up to you to take the necessary actions. You might just change your mind. Who knows?

This is an illustration of having an advantage of taking a step back and seeing the bigger picture. It is not that easy because it requires us to emotionally detach from our subjective views.

2. Identify the actual work to be accomplished

The work to be accomplished is not always straightforward and will come with a combination of both technical and adaptive problems. As leaders, we need to understand and identify them.

Like I’ve mentioned before, you don’t require leadership when solving technical problems.

  • An expert in a field or management is solving a technical and routine problem

  • We aren’t turning to them to lead but simply to do their job

  • When we’re doing things that you know already we don’t need leadership

  • Replacing a faulty heart valve during cardiac surgery - critically important but there are known solutions

However, this doesn’t mean leadership is more important than the art of technical problem solving, rather it is there to engender an environment to facilitate solutions for adaptive problems.

The common signs of adaptive problems might be:

  • No one knows the entirety of the problem

  • Innovation needs to happen; meaning learning has to take place

  • People fearing for the loss of their values will be a challenge to overcome

  • Plugging the gap between aspirations (what we want to achieve) vs reality; the reality that is unpredictable

  • Transforming a corporate culture to stay relevant and competitive is an example of an adaptive problem

Bottom line is:

If there are problems that are ambiguous with uncertainty in both identifying and resolving, those are adaptive problems.

3. Take action to solve the problem

Let's be honest, an individual has no capacity to solve most problems on their own. This theory only resides in comic books and movies. A multitude of individuals is highly likely required to solve adaptive issues. The first sign of good leadership in adaptive challenges is to get all the stakeholders involved. Stakeholders are people whose input is required because the output of the solution will affect their respective groups.

As you can probably see, there are various parties involved in solving an adaptive problem. It is paramount to listen to each and every stakeholder’s concerns and to ultimately come up with a consensus that’ll hopefully permeate the alignment required.

The process to consensus is likely to be tumultuous, because various minds and opinions get involved. Most of the time, these create conflicts in an organisation which make it easy to deviate from the quintessential thing; the actual work to be accomplished. The results are often half-hearted and pernicious.

Hence, coordinating conflicts is an essential trait a leader should have in their arsenal. There are techniques to facilitate conflicts coordination. The gain from the conflicts should always result in some form of multi-party learning. Again, that’s a topic for another day.

Building trust, influence and leading beyond the proverbial authority is also as equally essential, as more participation is required to tackle the unknowns. Care and candour should be balanced all the time and additionally, an environment for all the parties to learn from each other, should be fostered.

You do not necessarily have to have an authority to facilitate this. You just have to have leadership traits. Leadership doesn’t necessarily require rank. Informal authority (influence) is equally, if not more effective.

Never forget one thing though, you are here to give, i.e. provide your services to whoever has trusted you with power.

Authority, whether whether formal or informal, should provide the necessary services


When facing problems or issues, if we can get a holistic view and filter adaptive versus technical problems, half the battle is already won. The rest depends on our acquired techniques and the use of our informal as well as formal authority. This will further require careful garnering of our emotional intelligence and competencies.

Leadership isn’t easy.

It is similar to how you look at every challenge in life. It will also try to make you give up sometimes. Although that is the same for our other endeavours. Another point is to not get too hung up on metrics when all we're trying to do is bring goodness in people’s lives. We cannot measure why we provided services to 500 people instead of 1000. Nobody will come up to us and ask us why we only solved 50 problems instead of 100. You cannot measure good.

Material to read:

Adaptive Leadership - Ronald Heifetz

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