CEO Coaching: Problem Solving is Not Real Leadership

I frequently interact with entrepreneurial types who find themselves running a growing organization and have little idea how to do so. They never worked in a larger organization, never had a mentor who was a talented leader, never went to school or training programs for management, never had a leadership coach, and never studied and practiced leadership — yet they believe they should somehow know how to run an organization. Their business card or LinkedIn profile says they’re the CEO or Senior Vice President of something, so they must have the skills, right?

Being visionary doesn’t mean you know how to get people to follow you to attain that vision, let alone develop the processes and methods necessary to execute a plan.

Too often, people in leadership roles (you’ll note that I didn’t say “leaders”) believe that problem-solving is the way to lead. It’s the story of a powerful local lord in his castle with a line of peasants asking for solutions to their problems one by one. The line never shortens, and the lord doesn’t learn how to lead.

Real problem-solving is a valuable skill, but it isn’t the road to becoming a successful leader. I learned from a mentor that a problem is “a deviation from expectations for which you don’t know the cause and that you care about” (i.e., it is “material”). Problem-solving may involve creative thinking, but it isn’t innovation. It doesn’t build large, new addressable markets. It doesn’t develop your people.

Years ago, I ran a very large organization at a relatively young age. I was pretty good at planning, but some days I just showed up in the office, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t stay busy for 10 hours just responding to problems. Sometimes that felt good, but like our above-mentioned lord, I didn’t become a better leader or build any organizational capacity to grow, and I taught people that I could make their problems magically go away. At the end of the day, the answer to “Did you move the organization ahead?” was “No!” Treading water means you didn’t drown that day, but it isn’t real progress. Problem-solving is a required skill, but don’t mistake it for leadership.

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