Successful leadership requires cultivating the problem-solving abilities of others

IMG_1365 If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is, but if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought and could be.  —Goethe

The good news is that the given the right conditions teachers can solve the vast majority of their own problems.

The bad news is that schools leaders too often willingly assume responsibility for teachers’ problems and feel overwhelmed by the additional work they have taken on. As a result, they have little time or energy to devote to the tasks that only they can can do and that are essential to the achievement of their organizations’ goals.

When leaders solve problems for others they create dependency, cause atrophy in teachers’ problem-solving abilities, and diminish important opportunities for professional learning that can only occur when staff members assume responsibility for their problems, grapple with solutions, and experience the consequences of their actions.

David Rock addresses this issue in Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work: “When we try to think for people it takes a lot of mental energy on our part…. Some leaders think it’s their job to tell people what to do or have all the answers…. Managers often complain about how they have to constantly solve their people’s problems—sometimes I sense it is the manager more addicted to this than the staff. Giving people an answer does little but continue their dependence on you.”

On the other hand, leaders strengthen problem-solving “muscles,” Rock argues, by inviting others to do the intellectual work of clarifying problems and identifying solutions. Telling people what to do, he believes, should be leaders’ last resort.

Leaders who wish to address this “addiction” can:

• Believe (or act as if they believe, in the spirit of “fake it until you make it”) that teachers already possess or can acquire the skills to solve most of their problems. (Leaders attitudes about staff members’ ability to solve problems may be shifted in a positive direction when they see them successfully stepping up to the challenge.)

• Determine what role they will play in assisting teachers’ in solving their problems. I encourage leaders to first and foremost serve as committed listeners whose attention supports teachers in thinking more deeply about their problems and in generating possible solutions.

While they may also provide necessary resources or professional development opportunities, leaders seldom offer advice, which can be a subtle way of reinforcing dependence on the leader.

When leaders use these and other practices to develop and tap teachers’ problem-solving abilities, they distribute leadership in ways that increase the school community’s capacity to solve its most pressing problems and to continuously improve teaching and learning.

2 Responses to “Successful leadership requires cultivating the problem-solving abilities of others”


  1. 1 Jennie Snyder November 14, 2013 at 8:30 am

    Dennis,
    I appreciate your perspective. Your post is a good reminder that in meeting people where they are and encouraging their growth, we cannot fall into the trap of dependency. Our goal needs to be in developing the capacities of others to solve problems.
    Thank you for pushing my thinking.
    Jennie

    • 2 Dennis Sparks November 14, 2013 at 11:09 am

      Dependency may be the most significant barrier to the continuous improvement of teaching and learning (resignation is a close second). Dependency on principals to solve problems. Dependency on “experts” to provide solutions for complex problems. And so on. I appreciate your comment, Jennie!


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