One of the most difficult and interesting moments of leadership, especially early in our careers, is that moment when we realize that a problem or situation has no answer – or, rather, no correct answer. The years of work that we put into learning strategy, finance, operations and organizational processes and figuring out technology become virtually useless. What’s more, every problem presented during a high-stress situation seems unsolvable. Even worse is when we don’t recognize that some problems are unsolvable and, as a result, generate solutions that create more problems.
It’s time for a mindset shift. Leaders must appreciate that some problems are unsolvable – and that’s OK. Ultimately, it’s their ability to commit to a lifelong journey of becoming purposeful leaders that allows them to balance, and ultimately mitigate, these unsolvable problems.
Purposeful leadership is based on the five essential commitments each leader must make: to engage, achieve, innovate, inspire and become. When consistently applied on the job, Linkage research has found, these commitments translate into two times more revenue growth, four times more net profit and nine times more employee engagement. To make these commitments, there are three leadership truths every purposeful leader should live by:
1. Leadership Isn’t About Problem-solving
Part of becoming a leader is learning that not every problem needs to be solved. Leaders don’t solve problems; they achieve goals – and leadership cannot be taught; it must be learned.
Leadership follows a sequence that generally starts with learning how to set goals and achieving them with some sort of discipline. For many of us, becoming a leader started at a young age. We may have led as members of the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, been captains in organized sports, or led academic clubs. As we moved through our leadership journey, we have called on our ability to bring teams together around a set of standards and a common purpose.
Then, our career trajectory may progress into a situation where we are asked to achieve a goal in an area in which we have no expertise. We may be dealing with less than ideal circumstances, like tight timelines, minimal staff, or limited funding or resources. In this instance, we can rise to the occasion and figure something out – we ultimately progress.
We progress until we finally reach a problem or situation for which there is no answer. In that moment, we go from feeling successful to feeling like a fraud. In response, we may take the usual route that has served us well since junior high school: We go to a teacher (a boss or mentor) for “tutoring.” This time, though, they can’t seem to help. The people we have come to rely on can’t assist us. We have a problem, and there’s no help desk. Our first response when this happens is to see the problem as “out there,” in the world around us. Instead, we should shift our focus inward.
2. Leaders Are Part of the Problem
We must begin to think about ourselves as being part of the problem – in fact, as leaders, we are an integral part of every problem we face. Becoming a leader is the process of learning how we have inadvertently set in motion something that will come back to confound us days, weeks and sometimes even years later.
Here’s where we can reset our thinking as leaders: We must realize that some problems are truly unsolvable – that they are actually dilemmas. We can’t solve a dilemma; we must manage it by finding a middle ground.
As leaders, we must put our character on display and show that we feel the pain of others. We must model the way forward for others. We cannot become effective leaders until we practice showing others the way forward as a matter of our intrinsic character and presence. And doing it once isn’t enough; in fact, we can lead with purpose 500 times, ask for feedback and improve – and it still won’t be enough to overcome the dilemmas before us. However, something valuable happens when we lead from our most vulnerable place: We showcase our maturity and character as a leader, and we demonstrate the way forward for the people we lead.
3. Leaders Must Empower Other Leaders
Along our leadership journey, we are learning: about strategy, finance, performance management, operations and logistics; about how to scale from small teams to large teams to functions to divisions to companies; and about how to set goals and engage others. We are learning how to achieve and how to decide.
The mind is capable of some amazing calculations – but can it truly process the fact that we are the cause of a problem? When all we want to do is to retreat into our offices, can we understand that our presence, and our ability to stand boldly through the pain of a situation is vital and needed?
As leaders, we must work to help others believe in themselves. In fact, leadership is about giving our power to others so that they can lead. Sometimes, leadership is about knowing how to blend our voice and our power with others’ voices and power to enable a collective achievement.
Yes, leadership is about knowing and certainly about doing. But the most important and time-consuming journey to leadership is being.