One Leadership Skill to Rule Them All


I often have coaching conversations with individuals seeking to become better leaders. Most of the time, these conversations focus on the skills they need to develop to be successful. Common skills that people ask about include effective communication, decision-making, strategy, time management, and other more job-specific skills.

The leadership skills that I recommend individuals focus on vary based on the situation. After having many of these conversations, I began to ask myself a more general question.

What one skill should all leaders learn to be more effective?

The answer I have landed on is problem-solving.

Problem-solving is the one skill that holds everything together. Most other leadership skills are best used within the context of a problem-solving process.

What is Problem-Solving?

Problem-solving is a term that is used to describe a wide range of activities and approaches. It can refer to a loose set of skills used to deal with daily challenges or a specific method or process used to drive improvement. Sometimes it even refers to an innate personality trait or characteristic.

In terms of leadership skills, I define problem-solving as the application of a process or method to solve a difficult or complex issue.

In order for leaders to become skilled problem-solvers, they must learn a specific method that they can consistently apply to problems. There are many examples of methods that can be followed: Toyota Problem-Solving, 8D, STAR, PDSA, and many others.

The exact method chosen does not matter as much as the consistent application of that method. They are all based to some degree on the scientific method or scientific thinking and thus encourage the problem-solver to think about and analyze the problem and proposed solutions, rather than just reacting and searching for a quick fix.

The real power of problem-solving is in the wide range of situations in which it can be used. The wider our definition of a problem is, the more we can use our problem-solving skills to improve.

Problems Are Everywhere

A basic definition of problem is any situation that does not match the desired state. As leaders, we face this type of problem every day.

Quality or production targets are not met. Shipments from suppliers are late. Employees call in sick. Equipment breaks down. Projects run late or over budget. Team members have trouble getting along. The organization has long-term goals that have not been achieved. Processes produce too much scrap or waste. Your project team is not being creative enough.

Our days as leaders are a never-ending stream of problems. In fact, if our days were not full of problems, there would be no need for leaders. If everything in our organization went exactly as expected or desired, they could operate without any leaders.

The existence of our role is entirely dependent on the existence of problems. Everything we do can be described as problem-solving.

In fact, most of the leadership skills that are taught in leadership development programs are just tools to be used within the broader context of problem-solving.

For example, communication skills are a tool for solving the problem of people misunderstanding important information. Time management skills are tools for solving the problem of having too many priorities. Facilitation skills are a tool for solving the problem of ineffective meetings.

Any time a leader learns a specific skill, they are likely learning a tool to help them solve a very specific type of problem. If they focus on learning problem-solving, they will be learning how to solve any problem.

Don’t Solve Everything Yourself

As a leader, you need to know how to solve problems, but don’t get stuck in the trap of thinking that you have to personally solve all of your team’s problems. That can be a problem of its own.

If you are the only one who can solve problems, you will become a bottleneck in your team’s improvement. If everything has to go through you to be fixed, problems will persist much longer than they should. While issues are waiting in line for you to address, conditions will continue to grow worse. Eventually, the non-stop flow of issues will cause you to burn out.

Luckily, this is a problem that can be solved. You can apply your problem-solving skills to the situation and determine why you are the only one solving problems. Teach others the skills you have learned. Empower them to solve issues without you.

One skilled problem-solver can have a tremendous impact on an organization. A strong organizational focus on problem-solving can magnify the impact immeasurably.

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