Book Notes: It Worked for Me

I hope you have problems.

That’s a good thing, really.  A book I read recently cast a whole new light on what it means to have problems as a leader, and what you should do about them.

Today we’ll talk about why having problems can be good, and how you can handle them in a way that will significantly strengthen your ability to influence and lead others.

Book Notes - It Worked for Me

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It’s in the Job Description

The book was It Worked for Me, by Colin Powell.  With his 35 years as a leader in the Army, including time as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his four years as the US Secretary of State, he knows a thing or two about leadership in the real world.

His book is filled with interesting personal anecdotes that he uses to illustrate the lessons he’s learned about leading others.

Just about any page you turn to has practical wisdom that we as leaders can benefit from.  But it was his take on the business of having problems that caught my attention and made me want to share with you.

Powell points out that solving problems is what leaders do.

Solving problems is what leaders do. – Colin Powell Click To Tweet

As he says, “If your desk is clean and no one is bringing you problems, you should be very worried.”  It’s a sign that either your people think you can’t solve their problems, won’t solve them, or worst of all, don’t care.

Whatever the case, they’ve lost confidence in you.  You are not effectively leading any more.

When they bring you problems, it means they think you can do something about it.  They trust you.

So when problems arise, embrace them as opportunities to strengthen your leadership. Here are five things to keep in mind as you go about the business of solving problems.

Embrace problems as opportunities to strengthen your leadership. Click To Tweet

What You Need to Know

Expect problems.  If you have been a leader for any length of time you already know the truth of the adage that, “No plan survives first contact with the real world.”  Conditions will change, assumptions will prove unfounded, people will make mistakes, Murphy and his famous law will start to work their magic.

So if you aren’t seeing anything on your radar, it may be time to get suspicious.  The presence of problems means that things are happening, and you will have a chance to do your leadership thing.

Having problems as a leader is like having a heart beat – it’s an elemental part of leading.  Expect them.

Leave some maneuver room.   Since you know they are going to come, leave yourself some space to deal with them.  If you are up to your eyeballs in your own work, You won’t have the time or energy to fix the things that need fixing.

Follow smart delegation practices so that you have time in your day to do those things that leaders do.

Make yourself available.  Powell talks about how he would make a point of getting out of the office.  Whether he was a lieutenant in the Army, or the Secretary of State, he would walk about the area to see what was going on, talk to people, and get a sense of how things were going.

In doing so, he increased the chance of coming across smaller issues before they became big ones, and made himself available to people who might not otherwise have a chance to talk to him.

Walking around also gives you the opportunity to see if what you thought was happening is really turning out as you imagined.  You may identify some problems of your own.

Related: Getting Down in the Trenches.

Solve problems, don’t manage them.  When you find a problem, solve it.  Too often we might be tempted to ignore something if it makes us uncomfortable, or might require a difficult conversation with someone.   But avoiding, burying, or minimizing the problem doesn’t make it go away.

As leaders we need to have the courage to see things for what they are, confront that reality, and find real solutions that make a difference.

A key piece here, as Powell emphasizes, is to be sure to always follow up, and do it in a way that doesn’t undercut subordinate leaders (unless they are the problem!).

Fixing problems? Always follow up, and don't undercut subordinate leaders! Click To Tweet

Remember:  They are watching – Your actions are always on display.  If you discover things like safety violations, corners being cut, bureaucracy getting in the way, or inappropriate behavior, and do nothing about it, your inaction signals that it is not important to you.

You are saying that whatever is going on is not worth the effort to fix, and if you don’t care, they won’t either.  Never walk by a mistake.

Related: Leading with a Blind Eye: Why You Can’t Ignore the Thing You Didn’t Want to See

My $0.02

One more thought here:  Just because you identify a problem does not mean you personally have to solve it.  People have duties to perform and will naturally encounter challenges along the way.

If it’s their personal challenge, you can ask them about it, provide some mentorship, share some ideas, but don’t solve it for them.  If you do, they will continue to come to you with things they should be fixing themselves.

To find the kind of problems you are looking for, ask questions like these:

  • Are processes and procedures functioning efficiently to support the team and its customers?
  • Is the working environment positive, healthy, and productive for your team?
  • Does the team have the information, resources, and tools to get the job done?
  • Is the program, policy, or campaign going like it is suposed to?

When you make the time and take the time to identify the problems your team is having, and then set about the business of solving them, your teammates will see that you care, and that you are working to help them.

It’s a brand of loyalty and respect that most people will feel a need to return.  When you take care of them, they will take care of you.

When you take care of your people, your people will take care of you. Click To Tweet

It Worked for Me – The Takeaway

It Worked for Me will work for you too.  The book has an easy, conversational tone that makes it a pleasure to read.  It’s like hearing your favorite uncle telling interesting stories around the dinner table.

Most of Powell’s ideas and lessons necessarily come from his personal experiences as a Soldier and statesman, and he switches naturally from one to the other.  In this way, he demonstrates that these leadership lessons transfer and scale.

What you learn about leading two people in your first position are still applicable when leading 200 or 2,000, and you can apply that leadership knowledge in just about any area you might be leading.

Trust, respect, positive reinforcement, and personal connection are the foundations of influence and leadership.

When people see that you are ready, willing, and able to solve their problems, you grow stronger in all these areas, and you become a better leader in the process.

Note 1:  I’ve added It Worked for Me to my Good Books:  Leading Others collection as a valuable resource that can help all of us get better at the art of leadership.

Note 2:  Even after a lifetime of service to others, Powell continues to give back to the community.  Twenty years ago he founded America’s Promise to help give every child a fair shot at the American Dream.

That mission continues today as the organization works to provide things like caring adult mentors, safe places to live and learn, effective education, and an opportunity to develop healthy habits.

You can learn more about America’s Promise here.

General Powell has found a problem, and he’s working to solve it.

That’s what leaders do.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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