What’s the Problem?

by Brian Brittain on June 8, 2023


As coaches in service of enabling executive development, we trade in the world of organization and leadership problems.  An organization with a problem is like a person with a problem; interesting!  We need to help our leaders see that the right expression of the problem makes for interesting conversations with their teams.

Ajahn Chah (a Buddhist meditation teacher) used to say, “Where do you learn the most, when times are easy or when times are hard?”
A quick aside to illustrate my point about problems being what makes life interesting. How many of you have been with a good friend over drinks, a walk, as they pour their hearts out over a sticky problem they are enmeshed in, and can’t easily see their way out of?  The story, followed up by an apology for the burden they are leaving with you, being sorry for not showing up at their best for you.  They sheepishly search their pockets for a tissue to wipe wet eyes, as they avert those eyes from yours.

How often have you internally said, no, no, no, this makes things much more interesting.  Richer than if they had chosen to tell you about how smoothly their life was running.  Children in stellar careers and partnerships, perfect health, great golf scores played, cruises planned. Safe reports and conversations, with much left out of the telling.  I have never expressed out load my interest in their tragedy, but sure have thought it.  What do we like to watch on the screen?   We don’t connect and engage with stories about banal perfection.

Our problems (whether collective or individual) are what makes us interesting, what makes life rich.

Aliveness is to encounter and deal with setbacks head-on, figure out what our workarounds will be.  This process of adapting to what is, develops our agility and resilience.  Covering up our tragic stories, is what makes us fragile and limited in our capacity to deal with future life swerves.

The problem with problems is not the problem, but our propensity to feel inadequate or wrong for having the problem in the first place.  It is our reaction to the problem, that is the source of our pain, not the problem itself.  It is our pushing away of the problem, in the form of it should have gone this way, or it shouldn’t be like that, that is the source of our suffering, sucks up our energy, leaving us stuck.

When all interactions and conversations with each other become a mutual report of all is well, we regard each other as untrustworthy and inauthentic, as we detect the presentation of false selves.  Masks rule. Relationship limits. Life deadens.  “Great, thanks!  If it was any better, I couldn’t stand it.”

When a problem enters the space between us, we immediately become energized and engaged with each other.  The other’s willingness to be open and vulnerable motivates our better selves to show up, with permission to drop our own masks.  We like to identify with another’s humanity.  It is now safe to share our own stories of sadness.  We like to help.  We connect, become intimate, through an issue.  And if one party insists on maintaining the mask, then, well, that tells you how much you want to invest in the relationship.

In a previous piece I quoted George Saunders,

Art’s job is not to solve problems, but to articulate the problem correctly.  Make us experience the problem fully, without denying any part of it.

The same can be said of the job of leadership.  The job of leaders is to move the organization from where it is today, to where it has decided it must go.  Your job as a leader is to encourage the outward expression of both the desired future, but also the truth of current reality.  Name it to tame it.

Denial is the problem, not the problem.  When the problem is clearly stated without denial, sugar-coating or judgement, out there for all to see, then it becomes interesting.  An interesting puzzle for all to rally around and explore solutions together. The art of leadership is to correctly articulate and express the problem in a manner that motivates and doesn’t paralyze.

One of the major rules of good writing, is show, don’t tell.  I think this should be a major rule of good leadership as well.  As a leader you need to set up the cultural conditions and management practices for good problem solving, because your job isn’t to solve them alone.  Your job is to show your team the problem clearly, not tell them how to solve it.

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