The leader should rarely be a problem solver.

Don’t believe this? Or maybe you’re disposed to say, scornfully, “sad but true?” Both these extreme reactions might seem natural enough in the current 21st century of cynicism. But first a story…

Shortly after I moved to Washington, DC after 20 years of doing science and managing science in Boulder, an admiral in the NOAA Commissioned Officers Corps by the name of Billy Moran took me under his wing. “Bill,” he said, “you need to read this book they give officers over at the National Defense University at Fort McNair. It’s called Taking Charge: A Practical Guide for Leaders, by Perry Smith.” He actually gave me a copy of the book. I’ll always be grateful, even though he was probably making a pointed statement about my shortcomings.

Ever hear the expression, “leaders are born, not made?” One outfit that can’t afford the luxury of subscribing to this maxim is the military. Think about it. They’re in the business of moving leaders through the ranks just the way you move product along a conveyor belt. The academic community prides itself on its up-or-out tenure system, but they’ve got nothing on the military. So the military can’t be complacent. They must operate on the premise that it’s possible to make, or at least nurture and develop leaders. At Fort McNair and elsewhere they use such books towards that end [Smith has subsequently written another edition and similar books for a broader readership.]

The book started off with twenty principles for leaders.[1] One was this: the leader should rarely be a problem solver. Smith gave a compelling rationale in the book. One main task of leaders is the development of future leaders. And, he pointed out (paraphrasing here), men and women don’t become leaders by watching their bosses make decisions and take actions. They become leaders by practice. They must actually make decisions and take actions for themselves, and see how things turn out, and continually correct their mistakes, and hone their skills. This is energizing and motivating for subordinates, it builds organizational capacity, and ensures that the organization will be robust with respect to transitions and shocks (vital for the military, but important for every organization). So leaders should see themselves as coaches, mentors, advisors, instructors, critics.

There’s a second rationale. Suppose the leader were the go-to problem solver. Very tempting! After all, she is likely (or once was) one of the best problem solvers in the group. That’s often the key to her promotion in the first place. Things will work well as long as she succeeds. But if and when the leader fails (and it’s always when, not if), she loses credibility in the eyes of the group. And her leadership is forever compromised from that point on.

By contrast, if the leader makes it a practice to put the decisions and actions in the hands of those under him, then when they make mistakes (and they will), he can be in the role of picking them back up on their feet, and encouraging them to try again.

Reading Smith’s book reminded me: I’d heard the same thing, couched a different way, from my father, about fifteen years or more earlier. I’d just taken on my first research management position, at the tender age of thirty. I was maybe a little full of myself. My father, a mathematician and manager of a team of scientists himself, maybe had the insight to see I should be taken down a peg or two. He knew how to do this.

He asked me: “Bill, do you know why most scientists make poor managers?” What a loaded question! It was his way of telling me I had chosen a risky path. I decided it would be better to take my lumps quickly. “No,” I answered. “Why?”

“Because,” he answered, “scientists succeed by making mistakes and correcting them. You can have 99 bad ideas in a row in the laboratory, but if the 100th idea bears fruit, and you haven’t tried to publish any of your mistakes, you’re golden. But if you’re a manager it works just the opposite way. If you make one mistake, you can do the next 99 things right, and it won’t matter. People will still remember you for that first wrong move. So nothing in your scientific culture equips you to be a manager.”

[By the way, we see this truism operating at every level, don’t we – from first-level supervisor all the way up to President of the United States. So my dad’s advice is obviously an oversimplification, isn’t it? Leaders do slip up. And one of the traits separating the very best from the rest is the ability to recover from their inevitable blunders. This depends in part on the kinds of mistakes they make (lapses in judgment versus flaws in character), and part on personal qualities such as their openness, sheer force of will, and integrity.]

So, in many respects, the most important function of a leader is to create an environment where it is safe for the people working in the group to innovate and take risks.

So easily articulated! And it rings true. Furthermore, it’s not new. You’ve also heard it in one form or another haven’t you? Given that, why is this dictum so little-seen in practice?

The biggest reason? I don’t know for sure, but my guess is this. Such leadership takes a lot less effort. But it calls for a lot more courage. It requires that the leader place total trust in those in the group. It requires that the leader take more pleasure in seeing members of the group succeed than in the burnishing of his/her reputation. It requires that the leader let go. For too many of us, this is a non-starter.

I said that we see this truth very rarely operative. But there is one arena where it’s more evident, almost by necessity: professional athletics. Here the coaches don’t compete – only the athletes they train. Coaches live with the truth that win the team wins, all thee credit goes to the athletes, as it should, and when the team loses, the coach gets fired, and this is also as it should be.

In the next post: improving on your management/leadership skills by cutting back on all those managerial mistakes you’re making.


[1] You can find Smith’s full list here.

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