the shape of leadership

The Problem-Solving Leader

Three proactive steps to finding the solutions you need

Stephen Blandino on February 12, 2019


Problem solving is a vital part of leadership. Nehemiah, the Old Testament leader who rebuilt the wall around Jerusalem, certainly understood this. As he pursued a bold vision that would ultimately restore dignity to his people and his city, Nehemiah got wind of a problem.

Some of the people didn’t have enough food for their families. Others were mortgaging their fields, vineyards and homes just to eat during the famine. Still others had to borrow money to pay their taxes, and some were even losing their children to slavery because of their poverty and debt. This was more than a problem; it was a full-blown crisis.

How did Nehemiah respond to this horrific situation? “When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, ‘You are charging your own people interest!’ So I called together a large meeting to deal with them” (Nehemiah 5:6-7). The New Living Translation says, “Then I called a public meeting to deal with the problem.”

Here’s a reality you have to take hold of in leadership: Problems will come. Our natural tendency is to deal with those problems only at one of two times: when the problem is easy to solve, or when the problem has turned into a crisis.

When a problem is somewhere in middle — when it’s not easy to solve but it hasn’t become a full-blown crisis — we tend to ignore or delay our response to the problem. Choosing that path only creates a bigger problem. In fact, the size of the problem when you meet it is the smallest the problem will ever be until you deliberately choose to solve it.

Problems don’t solve themselves or go away by themselves. As a leader, you must become a proactive problem solver. How? Take a lesson from Nehemiah.

A Proactive Approach

From this story, we can identify three steps to proactive problem solving.

1. Honestly acknowledge the problem. Nehemiah didn’t pretend the problem was nonexistent. In fact, he became angry when heard about it. As soon as it came to his attention, Nehemiah acknowledged the gravity of the situation and immediately took action.

The sooner you work toward a solution, the more credible you’ll be as a leader.

Herein lies an important insight: Leaders have the influence to solve the biggest problems. But when we don’t acknowledge problems honestly, our lack of attention becomes gasoline to the fire. The problem multiplies.

Simply put, when solving problems, your attention is the gateway to a solution.

2. Clearly address the problem. Nehemiah’s immediate response to the problem was to call a public meeting to deal with it. Not all problems require a public response, but all problems do require a personal response. Somebody has to own it and then push for a viable solution.

Nehemiah’s action was swift and far-reaching. He said, “I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them — one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil” (Nehemiah 5:10-11).

The sooner you work toward a solution, the more credible you’ll be as a leader.

3. Build in accountability. Nehemiah came up with a solution and then held the people accountable to live by it. “‘We will give it back,’ they said. ‘And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.’ Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised” (Nehemiah 5:12).

Solutions without accountability are nothing more than problems in disguise. Not everyone will be on the team that identifies the solution, but everyone must be willing to live out the solution.

Let me highlight one more aspect of problem-solving: There’s no such thing as a problem-free solution. It’s so easy to get excited about a new solution that we never stop to consider what problems our solution might create.

Always remember that a solution will eliminate problems, as well as create them. You have to decide which set of problems you’re willing to live with as you choose a new solution. By carefully researching a solution, and its potential side effects, you can mitigate unnecessary problems, but not all problems.

You can’t avoid all problems. But don’t let that paralyze you. Acknowledge the problem that’s in front of you, address it with the best solution (with the fewest long-term downsides), and then hold people accountable to make it happen. That takes a leader — a proactive, problem-solving leader.


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