Leader as Problem Solver & Leader as Decision-Maker

John Baldoni

Warren Buffet, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, once wrote: “No sooner is one problem solved than another surfaces—never is there just one cockroach in the kitchen.” Mr. Buffet is right. Life is a series of problems waiting to happen. Leaders, as point people in the management of people and ideas, encounter problems daily, even hourly. The successful ones learn to deal with them and develop techniques to manage and solve them.

Unfortunately, even well-intentioned leaders can be overwhelmed by circumstance and their own stubbornness. President Lyndon Johnson’s experience in Vietnam is one such example; no matter how hard he tried, Johnson could not bend the will of the enemy, nor remove U.S. troops in a manner he deemed honorable. Likewise, the management of Chrysler Corporation in the late 1970s watched as the company continued to produce uncompetitive products and accumulated crushing debts.

Solving those problems took radical solutions. Upon taking office, President Richard Nixon began removing ground troops in a planned reduction. At the same time, he kept pressure on North Vietnam with heavy bombing raids as well as incursions into Laos and Cambodia to prevent supplies from reaching troops in South Vietnam. Lee Iacocca became President of Chrysler (later Chairman) and shortly sought government loans to save the Company. A short time later, Chrysler introduced the minivan, acquired American Motors, and positioned Jeep as America’s first sport utility vehicle. Neither Nixon nor Iacocca’s solutions were overnight successes; it took Nixon until his second term to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and it took Iacocca time to pay off the loans and nudge his company into the red. Both Nixon and Iacocca suffered reverses in later ventures, but both did achieve some gains. Nixon extricated American troops from Vietnam, and Iacocca helped resurrect Chrysler.

Few leaders can wait for the next in line to solve their problems. If they did, they (like Johnson and Chrysler management) would be out of a job. Leaders must devise solutions immediately or risk losing the loyalty of their followers. Good leaders, I believe, operate with a mindset that says, “problems are really solutions in waiting.”

Most important, good leaders come to realize that their most able resource in any problem situation is the people around them. Just as problems do not occur in the vacuum, neither do solutions appear from thin air. It is a mistake for leaders to assume that they must solve every problem by themselves. Problem solving, like leadership in general, requires involvement of others. Leaders should make hard decisions and set direction for the organization, but they also need to seek input from those involved, particularly those who must implement the solution. Good leaders seek advice from all stakeholders (customers, employees, suppliers) and then make a decision. There are concrete steps that leaders can take to address problems

Envision the outcomes… A leader must ask two questions when faced with a problem: What happens if we do nothing? What happens is we do everything possible? Some problems cannot be solved no matter what you do; that problem calls for containment, or operational mode. Other problems need to be extinguished like fires—quickly, safely, and with maximum resources. Considering the outcomes narrows the options and provides a choice.Assess the situation… Stand back and take a deep breath. Even in the heat of battle, combat officers learn to divorce themselves momentarily from the danger of the moment so that they can assess the situation before make a decision. By stepping back, if only for a day, an hour, even five minutes, gives the leader the benefit of perspective and time. Assessment in this situation is a form of reflection; it helps the leader to “get out of himself” and just think.

A common phrase in management is “think out of the box.” The term refers to devising unconventional approaches to common problems. For example, Volkswagen’s next generation Beetle is such a product. It combines the heritage of the hole in an all-new sleek package.

There are some ways to train your mind to think unconventionally.

  • Brainstorm. Get everyone together and throw out ideas. Be non-judgmental.
  • Adopt the perspective of the customer: What would a customer want done to solve the problem?
  • Dialogue. Get a trusted partner. Review the problem. Consider solutions.
  • Create a visual metaphor. Create a pictogram of the problem. Present to others and discuss it. (2)
  • Think laterally. Look outside the problem to gain perspective. It involves awareness, alternatives, and provocation (i.e., stimulating creative thoughts) (3)
  • Force Field Analysis. Draw two columns. Label one “forces for change.” Label the other, “force against change.” List forces for both columns. Discuss how to overcome the restraints so that positive change may occur. (4)

Delegate authority… Give ownership of the problem to those who must implement the solution. Provide the team with guidance, but leave the details to the employees. Let them fill in the blanks. Good leaders learn to let go. They trust their people to do their jobs. At the same time, the leader needs to “be in the loop”—informed of progress and available for consultation.

Adopt a solution…Sometimes individuals and teams find the adoption step to be the easiest. Selecting the right solution is often the logical outcome of the creative process; people know the possibilities and the outcomes, and can decide amongst themselves what is best for the organization. The ease of selection, however, does not mean the solution will be easy to implement, only that it was readily apparent as the right choice.

Implement the solution… Once the solution is formulated, the leader must find the resources to implement it. In manufacturing, the solution may involve application of a new process and acquisition of a new piece of machinery. New training may be required. The leader should gather all resources necessary and make certain people have the authority and support to do what they need to do.

Reflect on what to do next time… Evaluate the steps you took to solve the current problem. Ask yourself: could you have done it more efficiently, more quickly, more creatively? Prepare for the next eventuality. Like disaster contingency plans, formulate next steps to help the organization prepare for the next problem. And then, once again, take a step back and just think about the entire problem and solution process. Many people find that ruminating over problems over time can produce new ideas.

All of these problem-solving measures are effective, but most leaders will state that the best solution is to anticipate the problem and head it off before it occurs. Leaders who “manage by walking around” are ones who have good instincts for rooting out situations before they fester into problems. These leaders are also adept at looking problems in one area of the company and sensing that they could spread to another area. A systems thinking approach, as practiced in organizational learning, teaches us how to analyze the root cause of one problem and then think how that root cause, or its consequences, may affect another aspect of an organization. (1)

Product development teams apply systems thinking when designing various components for a product: be it an appliance, a computer, or a car. By looking at how all of the components work together, and then determining if problems with one may affect another, the engineers determine the functionality and efficiency of the total design. Likewise, astute human resource professionals look at their organizations with a similar mindset. If one group is experiencing trouble with a benefits plan, they immediately look to other departments to assess their experience with the plan. In this way, they prevent a problem from spreading by heading it off.

An even more effective means of ensuring work harmony is to assess the work styles of individuals working within teams. One instrument for assessing how people interact is “I-Opt™.” By simultaneously measuring both individual styles and the relations between group members, “I Opt™” identifies individuals as possessing one of four strategic styles. “I-Opt™” groups individuals according to how they process information, react to problems, and work with others. As with most evaluation instruments, no individual is all one style or another. Most people are a combination of all styles, but with a strong accent on one or two other styles. For example, some individuals like to use spontaneous approaches to problems and situations; they are focused on tangible, near-term outcomes. Other individuals may be idea generators, who tend to work without detail and seek satisfaction in creative solutions.

Knowing the working style of an individual can help a team leader choose individuals best suited for specific project as well as assign individuals of complementary styles to work together. “I Opt™” is not a problem solver per se, but it is an instrument that leaders can use to maximize human performance. And, by knowing individual work styles, leaders can allocate the right blend of people to solve problems when they do occur. (3)

Anticipation and preparedness may be the best antidote in a leader’s problem-solving medicine kit bag. But, short of heading off a problem before it occurs, the leader who maintains the mindset that problems are prolific, but so too are solutions, is one who will be prepared to respond quickly and effectively when problems do occur.

Problem solving by its nature lends itself to a step-by-step analysis process. But the solutions required to solve them are not always based in procedure. While the steps themselves are straightforward, implementing them, particularly in fast-breaking, tension-riven situations can be extremely difficult. Furthermore, moments of crisis do not always allow for creativity. What we need is a leader who can stand back and assess the situation coolly and calmly, with the dispassion of a surgeon, but the creativity of an artist, is a leader. That leader, of course, likely does not exist, outside the pages of fiction. But the leader who can exert command over a problem, call in the right people to solve it, and support them in their efforts, is the individual most organizations need most desperately—the leader as problem-solver.

© 1999 John Baldoni


(1) Systems thinking was developed at M.I.T. by Jay Forrester and his team in the early 1960s. Peter Senge later incorporated Forrester’s ideas on systems thinking into his landmark book on organizational learning, The Fifth Discipline.

(2) Proctor, Tony (1995) Essence of Management Creativity Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, UK: Prentice Hall (UK) International [ This book includes a collection of creativity exercises gathered from a variety of different sources; as such it is an invaluable resource for those looking for ways to provoke creative ideas.]

(3) Edward de Bono pioneered the concept of lateral thinking and other creative thinking methodologies. [ cited in Essence of Management Creativity.]

(4) Proctor, Tony (1995) Essence of Management Creativity Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, UK: Prentice Hall (UK) International

(5) Those interested in using the “I-Opt™” assessment instrument may obtain it by calling Professional Communications, Inc. at 734/662-0250 or 800-860-0250, or by visiting the “I Opt™” website at www.iopt.com.


Leader as Decision Maker

Decisions mark the measure of the leader. Good decisions result in good results. Poor decisions contribute to mistakes. Deciding which is good and which bad is a good exercise of leadership.

All the attributes of leadership contribute to a leader’s ability to encourage others to follow. A follower’s initial attraction to a leader may relate more to charisma and quality of vision that anything, but those characteristics will pale if they are not reinforced by effective decision making.

If you consider leader’s job to move people from one place to another, either physically like Moses leading the Israelites from the Land of the Pharaohs, or figuratively like the late Roberto Goizueta leading Coca Cola into the era of reinvigorated growth and profitability. In both cases, as with all leaders, it is decision-making that makes the critical difference. Moses decided to defy the Pharaoh’s repressive measures and in the process began the exodus from Egypt. Goizueta decided to abolish the structure that gave the bottler’s effective control of the corporation. By doing so, he opened the door for Coke to control its own destiny.

Moses and Goizueta’s decisions were marked by action and follow through. Both men decided to do something, did it, and followed through on the consequences of their actions. While the examples of Moses and Goizueta worked well in the long-run, each suffered short term setbacks. With Moses, it was continued resistance from the Pharaoh; and with Goizueta it was dyed-in-the-wool resistance from Coke’s finance committee headed by his former mentor, Robert Woodruff. Despite these obstacles, both Moses and Goizueta persevered and held fast to their decisions.

Decisions, it is often said, are not made in a vacuum. They are formed by context that is an amalgam of circumstance, experience, personality, and situation. Decisions emanate from context as much as they do from people. But it is up to the leader to use the context to create a need for decision-making. Effective leaders are adept at creating an urgency for decision. Andrew Grove, the long-serving CEO of Intel, demonstrates the power of the moment with his mantra, “only the paranoid survive.” This adage means you’d better watch out for everyone because they are out to get you. While this insight may be detrimental to relationships, it is essential to competitive business practices. Grove weighs key decisions against the background of context—e.g., the market place, the competition, consumer trends. And by bringing his key advisors into the loop with him, he convinces them of the need to act and act boldly.

The ability to make effective decisions is rudimentary to leadership. But unlike character, which is formed by nature and experience, decision-making can be taught. What are the elements that go into effective decision-making? Here are seven points to consider.

Determine purpose for the decision… Before a leader can decide, she must orient herself to the context of the organization. In other words, she must ask, why are we doing what we are doing? How does this decision fit into our organization’s values? Why are we considering making a decision now? Answers to those questions should be consistent to an organization’s mission and purpose. If they coincide, then the leader must use the values of the organization to help decision-making.

Reinforce alignment… Effective decisions within an organization must be within character—that is, they must be in alignment with the organization’s purpose for being. So, if the answers to business purpose are muddled and inconsistent with an organization’s values, then the leader has a problem. For example, if an air conditioning repair service finds that it is doing plumbing work, the boss must decide one of two things: either, return to air conditioning basics; or expand the business charter to include plumbing.

It is perfectly acceptable to change the purpose of the business, but that requires a decision. What is unacceptable is to decide not to decide—in other words, to continue the status quo. This lack of decision-making creates confusion in the minds of employees, vendors, and customers. Strategists stress the importance of alignment, making certain that people and purpose fit together.

Gather facts… Context shapes the decision-making process. But context depends upon perspective—who you are and where you stand within the organization. In other words, the company looks like a tightly humming operation to a CEO. To a front-line manager, the company seems a morass of conflicting goals, ill-defined objectives, and confused personnel. It is, therefore, the leader’s responsibility to ascertain the facts, the God’s honest truth. He can do it two ways: one, by walk around frequently—and physically. (The view from behind a desk can be rose-colored); two, rely upon data gathered by trusted sources. (In many cases, the more good sources the leader has, the better informed he will be.)

Solicit opinions… Good leaders learn to let others speak first. If a leader puts in the first word—other than to invite ideas—he by virtue of position may inhibit others from speaking out. The speak-first leader runs the risk of stifling creative suggestions, constructive or critical. Worse of all, a leader who ventures an opinion right away, either directly or indirectly, communicates that he does not value other people’s ideas. When followers no longer feel as contributors then they will begin to lose interest in the decision-making process, and ultimately lose enthusiasm for the organization itself.

Make the decision… Decide the big issues. Front line people can make many decisions. For example, customer service representatives should make customer service decisions that affect the well-being of the customer relationship. Likewise, many decisions affecting operations, logistics, and marketing, should be made by people who will live with their consequences. By contrast, decisions that affect organizational health must be made by the leader—the ultimate person in charge. When the “buck stops here” sign is on your desk, you must be the one to make the hard decision.

Abide by the consequences… Decisions have consequences; those consequences will become embedded in the fabric of an organization. If a physicians group decides it wants to contract with a hospital, the decision is far-reaching and will affect the growth opportunities of the practice. Yet, if the practice declines to affiliate with a hospital chain, the ramifications also will have an impact upon future growth. Regardless of what the decision is, the entire organization must learn to live with the results. It then becomes the leader’s responsibility to rally the troops around the decision and make it work to the benefit of all involved.

Learn to repeat the cycle… Just as decisions are determined by context, circumstances change. That change requires a re-thinking, a re-examination, a re-framing of past decisions. When such a situation occurs key decisions will have to be revisited. Leaders can agree to let original decisions stand, but they must periodically evaluate them in the light of current situations. For example, if a supermarket chain decides to open a video rental boutique, it must periodically look at the business that the boutique is generating to see if it warrants remaining. Likewise, if a company decides to outsource its benefits administration, it would be wise to consider the cost of those services over time to see if bringing such a service back in house. Change is a way of life, and therefore, leaders must continue look to re-evaluate the decisions affecting their situation.

The decision-making process described here applies to leadership decisions, those that affect the outcome and future of an organization. But the same rules apply to departmental and front-line decision making. The only difference is that the consequences affect fewer people. A customer service supervisor’s decision to refund a customer purchase may add up to twenty dollars for the company, but may actually be worth many thousands in good will. A manager’s decision to embark on a one million dollar new product venture is all-important to him, but may be of little consequence to a mega-billion enterprise. A president’s decision to open a factory in Asia may affect their entire company. Regardless of scale, decisions are choices with consequences.

Ultimately effective decisions are rooted in the character of the man. We can look to our Presidents and see evidence of their behavior in key decisions. John Kennedy pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war when he pressed the USSR to remove the nuclear missiles from Cuba. This decision echoed Kennedy’s firm resolve, but also echoes with the bravado he displayed in his reckless personal behavior. Richard Nixon illustrates his duality of character with two key decisions: his visionary journey to meet Mao Zedong in 1972, and his persistent lying about the Watergate cover-up.

Every leader has a duality—the inevitable pull between altruism and self-interest; it is part of human nature. The challenge, of course, is to enable the altruistic side to win more times that self-preservation. The struggles of William Jefferson Clinton are a contemporary case in point. President Clinton is bold on matters of foreign affairs and domestic race relations, but shallow and venal in his personal behavior with some female associates. History will be the ultimate judge of his effectiveness.

Effective decision-making can lead to effective leadership. It is a matter of applying critical thinking skills serve the benefit of the group rather than the self interest of the leader. Easy to state, but challenging—yet infinitely rewarding–to deliver.

© 1999 John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership communications and development consultant working with Fortune 500 companies as well as entrepreneurial start-ups.

For nearly 20 years, John Baldoni has helped executives from entrepreneurial start ups to Fortune 100 companies to help them develop their communications, learning and leadership skills.  

The author of two books on leadership, Personal Leadership, Taking Control of Your Work Life and 180 Ways to Walk the Leadership Talk, he has written more than three dozen articles, essays and commentaries on leadership. He consults on management development at the University of Michigan, and is a former commentator for Michigan Radio ’s “Life, Leadership and Laughter,” which he created. He is also a highly sought speaker. His most popular topics are the qualities of personal leadership and the importance of leadership communications.  

A graduate, with honors, from the University of Michigan’s Master’s program in organizational behavior and adult instruction, Baldoni is also holds degrees from Georgetown University and London International Film School.


For more on John and his work, visit www.LC21.com.

Scroll to Top