Take Your Problem Seriously

Solving Tough Problems book imageI just finished reading Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities by Adam Kahane, which is a book about the process that South Africa went through in the early 1990s to end apartheid. It’s a fascinating look at things from the view of the facilitator who led some of the initial discussions about finding a way forward after apartheid. Kahane relates one of the stories that was often told in South Africa in those days. It went something like this:

“We have two options for moving forward: (1) The Practical Way and (2) The Miraculous Way. The Practical Way is for Angels to come from heaven and take over. The Miraculous Way is for us to all sit down and talk it out and find a way to live and work together.”

Does that sound familiar? It seems that in some places, it would be a miracle somewhat akin to the parting of the Red Sea for different factions to sit down and work together. Yet, the truth is that there is no real way forward without this!

It confronts me with a paradox, too, because on the one hand, I believe that leaders have to cast vision and motivate people to action. On the other hand, I know it’s not enough to get to the top of the mountain—you have to get there with your people, too. So, leadership must be both empowering and inclusive. It’s a delicate dance, but a leader must always be balancing the question of “How do we move forward?” along with the equally weighty question of “Who’s not sitting at the table that needs to be?”

The temptation is to make sure that there are only seats available for those who see things like you do. However, not only do those with opposing views need to be there, you and your followers need them to be there, too. Kahane offers several suggestions that can help us as leaders be inclusive while not sacrificing the agenda to dysfunctional “disgruntled-about-everything” people.

  1. Listen to everyone.
  2. Speak freely from your heart.
  3. Establish and follow reasonable norms and expectations for conflict engagement.
  4. Believe that it’s possible to find the win-win for everyone.
  5. Realize that without seeking the win-win, it’s likely that a lose-lose scenario will prevail.

You may not be building or rebuilding a nation, but you are probably building or rebuilding an organization, a city, a department, or team; and let’s face it, nations are made up of teams, organizations, communities, cities, etc. The stronger we are at the foundational level, the stronger we will be as a whole.

The problem your organization faces is probably serious to you and to those living within its context. Don’t diminish it. Your part as a leader in solving it is important—be sure you treat it accordingly.

Mike Mowery

Written by:
Mike Mowery
Chief Operations Officer, Strategic Government Resources

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