Why Every Problem is a Leadership Problem


If leadership were easy — or a skill you’re born with — more people would succeed at it. Unfortunately, great leaders are the exception. In the Dirt World and beyond, many people find themselves put into leadership positions with very little context and, in some cases, no training. And without being properly prepared, leading effectively is nearly impossible.

What are the primary tasks of leadership? To set a strategy, to model behavior, to rally the troops? One of the most important things a leader does is listen — in all directions: to those they manage, to their own bosses, and to the customers and communities they serve. Communication is key for leaders in the educational piece and for holding people accountable.

Only with careful listening does the reality of leadership become obvious: Every problem is a leadership problem. The problem may arrive disguised as a financial issue, an opportunity for greater accountability, or a process that’s not working. All of these are leadership problems.

Behind every business problem is a leadership issue

why-every-problem-is-a-leadership-problem-image1-Behind every business problem is a leadership issue

It’s easy to look at a business or organization and think there are many problems: people working in the wrong positions, divisions that aren’t managing their P&L effectively, or processes that don’t function properly.

“All these problems are leadership problems,” says Jocko. “All problems inside an organization are leadership problems.”

You can solve these individual issues as complicated as possible, implementing tactics that address the obvious issues without ever getting to the real problem: the quality of your leadership. And most companies aren’t teaching it. Whether the industry is construction, financial services, pharma — or take your pick — there isn't a lot of leadership training being offered.

To make matters worse, many times, being successful in one role — whether or not that role involves managing people — means a promotion to the next role without preparing them for what that new role will require.

Of course, the skills that make an outstanding individual contributor aren't always the skills that make a great manager. A pipelayer can excel as an individual without having a clue about leading others. As they continue to perform their role well, they may be looking good for promotion to a team leader role, regardless of whether or not the role of leader is a good fit — and without training or preparation on what it takes to lead.

Leadership is a practiced

why-every-problem-is-a-leadership-problem-image2-Leadership is a practiced

Managing is a skill you need to develop. As Jocko says, “People don’t often recognize that leadership is an actual skill, that there are techniques and tactics you can learn and directly apply.”

Leadership skills are not something you’re born with. Being an effective leader is just as natural as knowing how to play the guitar or excel at basketball. Both require practice and training. “You can’t just go play basketball,” Jocko says. ”You have to learn how to dribble, you have to learn how to shoot, you have to learn how to play defense, you have to learn the way the team is going to integrate together.”

As Jocko asks, “Is there any skill that a human being can have that's more important than leadership? I can’t think of one. Because there’s nothing that you can do as an individual that will beat what a team can do. So if you can get that group of people aligned behind a common goal and a common mission to get them moving in the same direction? That is the most important skill that I know of.”

Being an effective leader also is not a one-and-done. Leadership is a skill that takes regular practice. As Jocko says, “You have to continue to work at it to hone your skills.”

The skill of leadership also adapts as your role in the organization changes. “As you elevate your position,” Jocko says, “the perspective that you have changes, and you have to adapt your leadership to your new perspective and your new position.”

Although effective leadership tactics remain the same — listening well, showing respect, letting others influence you — it’s important to pay attention to ensure your tactics apply effectively across different scenarios.



No matter what sort of organizational problem you’re looking at — whether it presents as financial, personnel, logistics, or processes — that problem is a leadership problem:

  • As Jocko says, “Any problem, when you pull the thread on it,” is a leadership problem.
  • Once you realize that leadership is a skill you can learn, you’ll want to learn it.
  • Effective leadership is not a set it and forget it. Leadership is a skill that needs to be practiced and renewed as situations change.

If the leader is where the buck stops, that’s also who’s footing the bill. It won’t help to compartmentalize departments or jurisdictions as if their specific problems somehow arise separately from the primary leadership role. Improve your leadership, and you’ll find that what appeared to be a variety of unrelated issues swiftly fall into line.

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