Don’t Bring Me Problems, Bring Solutions

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problem solverYou have got to be kidding me. I am already running a little behind and now this happens! What am I supposed to do now? I am totally hooped…

Those thoughts rushed through my brain in a nanosecond as I landed on the ground utterly bewildered beside my now seemingly destroyed riding mower. The large commercial lawn mower had suddenly and inexplicably broken in half into two separate pieces. I hadn’t hit anything.

I was right in the middle of a straight, level stretch of grass when it simply separated into two pieces. I leapt off the heap of metal with the engine still roaring, the reel mowing arms still spinning violently, shut it down and assessed my situation.

Then, I did what any immature university-aged summer worker would do: I phoned the boss in a panic and asked what I should do.

I was the crew chief of a Vancouver-based sole proprietor commercial landscaping company. This was my summer job between university terms to pay for my degree, but I was about to get a profound free lesson in leadership from the owner of the company.

“Bill, I got a real problem here. We are out in Richmond and my mower fell apart – it just broke in half. We still need to get over to Surrey to finish the job there and now I’m totally hooped. What should I do?”

“Dave, don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.”, was Bill’s simple reply.

Well that’s not very helpful. I needed him to tell me what to do. However, Bill was teaching me a critical leadership lesson.

He did not take on the problem himself. He refused to put the ‘monkey’ on his back. This was my responsibility. I needed to solve it. How was I proposing to solve this problem? Had I put any thought into what could be done? Had I determined what my options were to fix this?

Bill quite calmly told me to go back and figure out my options for solving this problem, then, if need be, call him back to present my proposed solutions and which one I thought was the best.

I did just that. My investigation of the broken mower uncovered the fact that 2 bolts had fallen out of the joint in the frame, which led to the collapse of the mower. I found one, but not the other. I then went to the nearest hardware store to buy a second bolt and nut set. I reassembled the mower, finished the job and moved on to our last project for the day. I called Bill just to let him know I had fixed the mower and was back on track.

This is a simple little story about a very profound leadership principle. As leaders we need to equip and empower people to be ‘problem solvers’, not ‘problem presenters’. Leaders can oftentimes take on issues and tasks that really aren’t theirs to deal with. Someone from within the organization may present a leader with a problem they have no idea how to deal with. Instead of empowering and encouraging them to find solutions, leaders can often simply tell them what to do. After all, leaders are supposed to know what to do right?

Doling out solutions may work in the short term, but it’s not in the long term best interest of those we lead, nor the organization. Part of a leader’s job is to empower others to be problem solvers. Being the ‘answer man’ or ‘solution supplier’ does not equip people to be problem solvers. Leading like that handicaps the people we lead.

The next time someone brings you a problem, ask them what they think should be done and why. Work it through with them. Help them to see the critical success factors they need to consider and the potential negative elements they need to mitigate. Good leadership equips, empowers and encourages ‘problem solvers’; it doesn’t foster ‘problem presenters’ by handing out solutions. Model the process and then let them run with it.

Good leadership intentionally grows problem solvers because the leader understands the power of a team of problem solvers versus being the problem solver. And, their exhortation is always,

“Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!”

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Leading and Living on Purpose.