Leadership: Making Decisions vs. Solving Problems

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a missing piece in a square built from tangram pieces, a traditiWhat does it mean to be a good leader?

A common perspective on leadership is that a leader’s role is to make the right decisions, and the best leaders are simply those who make the best decisions. In this scenario, the leader’s team—the people who work for the leader—are to carry out the leader’s decision to the best of their ability. The team may have freedom to pass along information and perhaps even opinions to their leader, but ultimately the decision rests on the leader alone.

There really isn’t anything inherently wrong with this approach to leadership. In fact, this approach is absolutely necessary in some situations, such as a crisis when immediate action is needed and there is little time for debate or extensive gathering of data.

But is this framework the best for leading a team on a regular basis? On the surface, it sounds like a great setup; all the leader has to do is to make more right decisions than wrong ones, and the future is bright, right?

The problem with an approach to leadership where one or a few people at the top make all the decisions is that it is based on a flawed assumption, namely that the people who work under the leader have very little capacity and desire to be leaders in their own right. In an organization where being a leader means making decisions and all the decisions are made by just one or a handful of people, there are only a few leaders; everyone else is assigned their tasks to carry out.

But that’s not the ideal, right? As leaders, Even in a church setting that utilizes hundreds of volunteers, don’t you hope that among your volunteers are high-capacity leaders who have the ability to impact their environment in a positive way?

Again, there are times when a decision needs to be made and it falls on the leader, for better or worse. That’s what it means to lead a team sometimes. However, making most or all of the decisions may not be empowering your teams to be the best team members and leaders they can be.

So as leaders when we are faced with a problem or an obstacle, maybe our focus shouldn’t be on just making the right decision. Let me suggest a different paradigm: Instead of being decision makers, maybe we should instead be problem solvers.

Not sure about the different between the two? Let me explain.

Problem solving invites people into the process.

When a team’s leader is simply a decision maker, then the team’s job is to simply carry out orders. At best, the team is allowed to have some input on decisions. At worst, the leader is a Moses figure who ascends to a mountain—or their office—and descends only to declare their revelation. The key to problem solving is that it’s almost impossible to do well on your own. Approaching leadership as a problem solver invites people to help find a solution that the team gets credit for. Of course, it’s possible to solve problems on your own without a team, but at that point, what you’re really doing is reverting to deciding how to solve a problem on your own and telling your team how to carry out your plan.

Problem solving involves assigning responsibility rather than tasks.

When you lead your team with the mind of a problem solver, you share the responsibility of solving problems with others. People aren’t just assigned tasks to carry out, they are assigned responsibility over a part of the solution. For instance, if your team is working on how to connect more new people in your church into small groups, you might ask a teammate to plan a Group Connect with some volunteers with the goal of connecting new people into groups. Rather than deciding how it has to be done all by yourself and assigning tasks, you’ve just just released a teammate to be a part of the solution.

Problem solving gives your team freedom to improvise.

Some leaders dislike improvisation, because it makes them feel like the outcome is more uncertain. The ironic thing is that most—if not all—leaders improvise. Chances are, you’ve hired employees or recruited volunteers because they have some level of talent or ability. When you make decisions and assign tasks, you render your team members unable to use the very gifts and talents that made you want them to be a part of your team. Being focused on problem solving allows your team members to flourish. In fact, when you ask your team to solve a problem, you may just find that people on your team possess abilities that you never knew about.

Problem solving gives the leader (that’s you!) time to focus on the big picture.

If you’re focused on making most of the decisions, you will have very little time to dream, pray, and ask God for direction. But when you are leading your teams to be problem solvers, you’ll start to find that your team is so good at it that you have more time to actually lead. And isn’t that what you got into leadership to do in the first place?

 

What are your thoughts about problem solving?

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