Most people in a leadership position respond to problems. They are often very effective problem solvers.
This is often one of their chief assets–and it can be a weakness.
The Squirrels Are Eating the Peanuts
In his recent book on leadership, It Worked for Me, General Colin Powell tells the story of his visit to his boss, President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office one day. He came to brief the president on a problem and seek a solution.
At this time Powell was the National Security Advisor to the president. In that capacity he reported to the president that there was a major turf battle going on between the Defense Department, the State Department and other agencies concerning some important matter. Powell set out all the details of the battle, who said what, etc. He then waited for the president to give his solution.
Reagan had been watching beyond Powell through a window into the Rose Garden. At that point Reagan said to Powell, “They are eating the peanuts I put out there yesterday, the squirrels are eating the peanuts”.
At first Powell was irritated and puzzled. After he left the Oval Office and began to think about what had happened he began to realize what the president was telling him. The president had to make many vital decisions every day. He had to lead the nation and the free world. He relied upon his staff and cabinet to advise him and solve problems for him. He understood that being one man he could not possibly solve all the problems of the nation, the world or the government on his own.
Leaders Make Fundamental Decisions–Others Execute
What Reagan understood so well–and many others do not always understand so well–are the limitations on their time, authority and ability to effect change. A great leader can assimilate vast amounts of information and listen to the counsel of others. In the end a great leader must make the big decisions. This is all a leader has time to do: assimilate the information needed, listen to counsel, and then make a decision. The hundreds or thousands, or in the case of the US government, the millions of other people in the organization must carry out those decisions and solve the problems inherent in carrying out those decisions.
It was not Reagan’s job to solve Powell’s problem. It was Powell’s job to solve the problem and report the solution back to the president.
If you read about other great leaders you will see this same thing happen. President Lincoln would often reply to a governmental problem with a joke or amusing story. He knew he could not solve all the organizational problems of the Army or the Congress or the government. He knew that others had to do that work while he led the nation and the war effort.
When Leaders Should Not Solve Problems
Powell learned that as a staffer to the president it was not his job to bring the president problems for the president to solve. His job was to bring problems and their solution to the president who could then approve them or reject them. This would leave the president to do the work of leadership that all his time and energy had to be devoted to.
You do not have to be president of the United States to understand and apply this leadership principle. Anyone in a position of leadership must be wise enough to delegate to his staff the job of solving problems. The leader’s staff must accept that responsibility and execute it. The leader makes wise decisions about who he puts in charge of what in an organization. He selects the best talent he can find. He provides them with the guiding principles he wants carried out. The details are not for him to worry over – they are for the staff to do for the organization.
If you are a leader you must budget your time and energy and use these limited resources for the important decisions that must be made at the highest levels of the organization. If you are a great leader you will understand those limitations and resist the temptation to micromanage the organization. A leader bogged down in minutia will lose the opportunity to make the big decisions and solve the big problems.
If you are the support staff for a leader you will enable him to do his job by executing his vision and solving the problems for him. In this way the respective roles of leader and support staff work together to smoothly run a large organization.
Daniel R Murphy | When Leaders Should Not Solve Problems
Daniel R Murphy has studied what makes people successful for over 30 years. He writes on this and related subjects in his weekly newsletter, Creating True Wealth, available free at www.books2wealth.com, on his blog, www.CTWBlog.com and in articles published on the web. Copyright © 2012, Daniel R Murphy.