Why Every Problem is a Leadership Problem
Written by Jocko Willink
December 28, 2021
If leadership were easy — or a skill you’re just 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, next to no training. And without first being properly prepared, it’s nearly impossible to lead effectively.
What are the primary tasks of leadership? To set a strategy, to model behavior, to rally the troops? In fact, 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, both 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.
It’s easy to look at a business or organization and think that there are a multitude of different types of problems: people working in the wrong positions, divisions that aren’t managing their P&L effectively, processes that don’t function properly, and more.
“All these problems are leadership problems,” said Willink. “All problems inside an organization are leadership problems.”
You can make solving these seemingly individual issues as complicated as possible, implementing tactics that address the apparent issues without ever getting to the real problem: the quality of your leadership. And companies aren’t teaching it. Whether the industry is construction, financial services, pharma — or, really, 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 — simply means elevation to the next role in the hierarchy, without regard for what that new role will require.
Of course, the skills that make an outstanding individual contributor are not necessarily the skills that make a great manager. A carpenter may make terrific contributions as an individual craftsman without knowing the first thing about leading others. As they continue to perform their individual role well, they may find themselves being tagged 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 not only a skill, but a perishable skill.
Managing is a skill you need to develop. As Willink said, “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 no more innate than knowing how to play the guitar or excel at basketball. Both require practice and training. “You can’t just go play basketball,” Willink said. ”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 Willink asked, “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 perishable skill. And it takes regular practice. As Willink said, “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,” Willink said, “the perspective that you have changes, and you have to adapt your leadership to your new perspective and your new position.”
Although the tactics of effective leadership 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 Willink said, “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. In fact, leadership is a perishable skill that needs to be practiced, and renewed as situations change.
If the leader is where the buck stops, then 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 role of leadership. Improve your leadership and you’ll find that what appeared to be a variety of unrelated issues swiftly fall into line.
Written by Jocko Willink
December 28, 2021