Obstacles or Challenges?

By Guy Higgins

I recently read an article, Psychology’s Power Tools. The article addresses the use of cognitive behavioral therapy to help people deal with very difficult personal situations. The author of the article made the point that part of achieving success in helping people in those situations is “reframing” the situation (“reframing” is a way of viewing events, ideas or concepts to find a more positive alternatives or perspectives) and that, I think, applies to leadership.

When I was on active duty, I had the exceptional opportunity to lead a program team in achieving an incredibly difficult goal (sorry, but that’s all I can say about that). My Systems Engineer had a coffee cup with the statement, “It’s a lousy, crappy problem and I get to solve it.” The key to that statement and the thing that really struck me was the “and I get…”

Problems are, as John Adams observed about facts, “stubborn things” – they rarely, if ever, solve themselves, but solved they must be. My Systems Engineer was framing problems as an opportunity to exercise his skills and abilities to do something noteworthy rather than as a disruption to his routine. I think that such reframing is a very fruitful endeavor and something that leaders need to do as they create an environment in which their people can and do succeed in accomplishing extraordinary things.

In my experience, creating that “reframed” atmosphere in which problems are challenges to be eagerly resolved is harder than it sounds. Leading any effort entails being under some pressure – the more difficult the effort, the greater the pressure and, more likely, the more and more challenging the problems. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that you set out to drain the swamp (keep that atmosphere of enthusiasm for attacking wicked hard problems) when you’re up to your ears in alligators (the wave of problems ranging from the trivial to the importunate to the important and really tough ones).

I think that what this means for leaders is that we all have to establish a personal attitude that aligns with the attitude that “I (or we) get to solve…” and not the “Oh drat, not another one! What did I do to deserve this?” If we, as leaders, maintain and manifest that positive attitude, provide our problem solvers with the resources to actually solve the problems, and routinely and publically recognize their success, we’ll keep the whole effort focused on the opportunity to overcome the challenge and not on the disruption caused by the problem.


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