Developing Leaders – Education

At some point, there needs to be a classroom. Once you’ve ignited the desire to learn by providing people exposure to real-life situations they will be responsible for, you need to impart the knowledge and skills. Note: throughout the training process, you will engage the help of others. Providing exposure requires the involvement of others and so will education.

Several years ago, when I was in graduate school, I had the opportunity to take a class from a man who was the top expert in his field. He was a prolific writer, fluent in 26 languages, he was brilliant. I couldn’t wait to be in his class. I learned from that class that having knowledge and knowing how to effectively impart that knowledge to others is two different things. I spent the class mostly confused. It was a huge disappointment.

Don’t be that teacher. If you’re not skilled at imparting knowledge or skills, enlist the help of those who are. Your organization may have a training department or access to online courses.  Use them. As the expert in your field, you can help develop the content but let those who are experts at education use their skills on your behalf. You’ll still get the connection credit from your trainee for making it all happen.

Education is about more than “instructing.” It’s about facilitating learning. True educators focus on making sure students learn.  People learn in different ways.

Learning Styles

Here are several examples of learning styles:

  1. Verbal – these people learn by using words
  2. Visual – these people learn by using pictures
  3. Musical/Auditory – these people learn by using sounds/rhythms
  4. Physical/Kinesthetic – these people learn by using their hands and body
  5. Logical/Mathematical – these people learn by using logic, reasoning, systems, and sequence
  6. Social – these people learn best in a group
  7. Solitary – these people learn best by themselves
  8. Combination – these people learn in a combination of two or more of these styles

Can you see how different instruction methods are necessary to help people with these learning styles learn?

Levels of Thinking

Another consideration is that people’s level of thinking about a subject will grow and mature. When I spent two years working in an education environment I was introduced to something called “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” It’s a way of understanding levels of thinking. Here it is from lowest to highest:

  1. Remembering – the ability to recall basic facts and basic concepts
  2. Understanding – the ability to explain ideas or concepts
  3. Applying –  the ability to use information in new situations
  4. Analyzing – the ability to draw connections among ideas
  5. Evaluating – the ability to justify a stand or decision
  6. Creating – the ability to produce new or original work

A Simple Outline

As you can see, the field of education is deep and complex. That’s why it’s a great idea to use the resources available to you. Tap into your training department if you have one. Use online tools or send people to classes. Chances are the education available through these resources has been put together with learning styles and levels of thinking in mind.

What if you don’t have such resources, or, you want to build a strong connection by conducting the training yourself? Here’s a simple training outline that can help you cover most of the complexities.

  1. Tell Them – explain what you’re about to teach from beginning to end
  2. Show Them – demonstrate how it should be done
  3. With Them – lead them through the steps with both of you doing the same things at the same time
  4. Watch Them – observe them doing it independently while answering questions and offering coaching at the end
  5. Teach Back – you learn more about something when you have to teach it. Have your trainee teach you what they just learned

Last week we talked about the importance of Exposure. This week we’ve been talking about Education. Most leaders make the mistake of thinking Education is the most important training tool. They seem to believe that if you get a diploma or certificate, then you should be ready to go. The truth is that Exposure should make up about 20% of the training experience. Education, while vitally important, should be only about 10% of the overall leadership development plan. Next week we’ll discuss the final component that should make up 70% of how you develop leaders.

Developing Leaders – Exposure

Last week I started a series on developing leaders. I wrote about a project I had worked on with a large healthcare system’s Northern California Region of 21 hospitals. We created a leadership development program for Environmental Services (EVS, the department responsible for cleaning and disinfecting the hospital to prevent the spread of disease) leaders across the region.  Where we started, and what I wrote about last week, was the question, “What knowledge and skills do advanced directors in that department need to have to be successful?”

After identifying the list of knowledge and skills we then asked the question, “How do we help people develop that knowledge and those skills?” The first thing most people think of when asked that question is training. What comes to mind first when we mention training is a classroom, in-person or virtual. But, that’s not where we started.

Forty years ago I read a book that still has an influence on my concepts of leadership development. Here is an excerpt from the publisher’s description of that book:

“On March 14, 1948, Douglas Hyde handed in his resignation as the news editor of the London Daily Worker and wrote “the end” to twenty years of his life as a member of the Communist Party. In [his book], Dedication and Leadership, [Hyde] advances the theory that although the goals and aims of Communism are antithetical to human dignity and the rights of the individual, there is much to be learned from communist methods, cadres and psychological motivation. Hyde describes the Communist mechanics of instilling dedication, the first prerequisite for leadership.”

Start With Exposure

If you have children who are or have been in High School, or you remember your High School days, you may remember the question, “Why do I even have to learn this stuff? I’m never gonna use it.” You can fill in the blank with which subject may be referred to by the question. But, do you remember?

A state and/or local body decides what should be in a school’s curriculum for a set of reasons that make sense to them at the time. Students may have some electives within disciplines but largely their responsibility is to show up and learn.  When they don’t understand why they’re learning this or that, motivation to learn is often very low. Only the most internally dedicated students, usually those who see this course as a necessary step toward a larger goal, excel.

The Communist Party, according to Hyde, takes a different approach to teaching new recruits. To instill dedication in new members, one technique of “the party” is to put brand new members on a street corner to hand out party literature. With very little knowledge or experience, they field questions and often endure negative feedback from passers-by. This exposure to the real world creates within the new recruits a strong desire to learn. It gives them questions they want answers to so, by the time they get to a classroom, they are eager to soak up the instruction.

We took a similar approach with the healthcare system’s EVS leaders. We set up the program to begin with Exposure in order to create the desire to learn. In fact, our goal was to focus 20% of the program on exposure opportunities.

Some Examples

One of the competencies for these leaders was “Demonstrates Customer Focus.” In a hospital setting everyone who comes through the door, staff and members/guests, is an EVS customer. A service strategy to address the whole spectrum of customers is to concentrate on service delivered to each of the many departments.

With that in mind, we had new EVS leaders attend the management huddles/meetings of some of the departments they serve. When an EVS manager is present in a meeting of the Surgery department, for example, the opportunity is rarely missed to bring up questions or concerns about between case cleaning, terminal cleaning (at the end of the day, not after someone dies) , or the sterile core, or bio-hazardous waste removal. The new EVS leader may not have the answers to those questions but, s/he  certainly has the motivation to find them. That exposure generates a desire to learn.

Even if those questions don’t come up, the new leaders are exposed to the meeting agenda letting them know what’s important to that department.

We also had them attend various committee meetings. One important committee, of which EVS is always a member, is the Infection Prevention and Control Committee. In those meetings, data and trend analysis about specific types of infections is discussed as well as strategies for preventing them in the future. This committee also reviews and approves procedures and products related to infection prevention including EVS procedures. What a great opportunity to instill a desire to learn about something that may not have been interesting to that new leader without exposure to the committee.

Exposure creates the desire to learn and grow. What are some things you could expose new leaders to in your organization?

Developing Leaders – What Do They Need?

Several years ago, I was asked to be part of a team tasked with developing a leadership training program for the Northern California region of a large healthcare system. This particular project was focused on developing leaders within the Environmental Services departments across 21 hospitals in the region. We were to standardize a plan that would allow people to grow through three levels of leadership (supervisor, manager, director) and transfer seamlessly from one hospital to another. We started from scratch.

We decided to follow the advice of Stephen Covey and “Begin with the end in mind.” Our approach was to begin by identifying the knowledge and skills required of an advanced director asking “What does that leader look like?” Then we worked backward, peeling away one level of advanced competency after another until we arrived at the base requirement for a first-time supervisor. Our team identified 78 specific skills. We categorized them under a list of 14 competencies that reflected the organization’s 9 Core “Total Performance Behaviors.”  This ensured that the program aligned with the organization’s method of evaluating leadership performance.

We then worked on three levels of development for each of the three positions. Whether a person was a supervisor, a manager, or a director, we developed training that focused on

  1. “Foundations” – the basics for that position
  2. “Full Success” – what a proficient person at that level would look like
  3. “Next Level Prep” – which was getting them ready for promotion

Here’s an example

One of the core behaviors this organization wanted to see in their leaders was that they  “Champion Innovation and Change.” Below are the competencies and skills at each developmental level that we identified.

  1. Core Total Performance Behavior – “Champions Innovation and Change”
    1.  Competency 1 – “Models Change Leadership”
      1. Skill 1 – Understands the business need for change. Facilitates the adoption of change through engagement and role-modeling
        1. Foundations
          1. Communicates the case for change to staff
          2. Develops basic change plans to accelerate staff engagement and adoption.
        2. Full Success
          1. Produces comprehensive change plans that include; stakeholder management, plans for engaging staff, plans for early wins, and strategies for building momentum and post-implementation sustainability
          2. Generates buy-in with staff, celebrates their willingness to change, and acknowledges them for great work
        3. Next Level Prep
          1. Provides Change Leadership on behalf of the Manager for Service Area wide change initiatives
          2. Implements sustainable changes within the department that become best practices
      2. Skill 2 – Provides Change Leadership for special projects involving labor and management (re-bid / re-balance, new space opening, re-organizing workflows, fixing problems, etc)
        1. Foundations
          1. Knows who to enlist to support the change (staff, HR, Labor Leaders, Department Managers, etc.)
          2. Articulates basic actions needed to move forward with a change
        2. Full Success
          1. Articulates changes that need to happen, and works with stakeholders to determine impacts to the stakeholders and strategies/tactics needed to enlist support (Staff, HR, Labor Leaders, Department Managers etc)
          2. Develops basic project plan and schedule to achieve change
          3. Has delivered special projects
        3. Next Level Prep
          1. Develops and negotiates clear roles for all leaders and support functions involved in the change
          2. Creates comprehensive project, risk, and change management plans for special projects.
          3. Has delivered complex special projects
    2. Competency 2 – “Encourages Participation in Change and Innovation”
      1. Skill – Encourages staff to offer ideas about better ways of accomplishing work
        1. Foundations
          1. Creates opportunities and makes time for staff participation and ideas in decision-making about work.
          2. Encourages staff to test new ideas
        2. Full Success
          1. Leverages tests of change and analyzes failures to build sustainable solutions.
          2. Uses both success and failure of tested ideas as learning opportunities for the staff
        3. Next Level Prep
          1. Maintains a portfolio of improvements and tests of change planned or underway
          2. Acknowledges improvement ideas offered by staff that have been converted into practice.

Here’s Why

No matter what you want to create or develop, it begins with a clear picture of the finished product in your mind. Whether you’re baking a cake, building a skyscraper, or developing a leader, you start by knowing what the finished product will look like.

That finished product, especially in the case of a leader, will reflect what your organization needs from them. What do you need them to do for you? Once you know that, then you develop the picture of what they need to have and be able to do in order to deliver what you need.

The next several posts will be on the topic of developing leaders. I started where we should start in that process, identifying what they need in order to deliver what your organization needs from someone in that role. Whether or not you’re currently looking for a new leader (hint: you should always be looking for new leaders), I encourage you to invest the time and energy into creating a “what they need” list. It doesn’t have to be as elaborate as the one we created for that healthcare system, but put some thought into it. It will pay huge dividends.

Leading Change – Part 4

Over the last few posts I’ve written about what causes people to fear change and how to address those fears in a way that helps them buy into you as a leader. Now the question is how do you make change happen? When you recognize the need for change and are aware of the fears that cause people to resist change, what steps can you take to implement the change?

For this I’m borrowing an outline from a very helpful book called, How Did That Happen?: Holding People Accountable for Results in the Positive, Principled Way, by Roger Connors and Tom Smith. Here are the steps:

F.O.R.M. The Change

The letters in this acrostic represent four questions. Is the change, first, Frameable? Does it fit within the Vision, Mission, and Values of the organization? How can you formulate and focus the change in a way that makes organizational sense? Why is this change happening?

The “O” asks,  “Is this change Obtainable with the current resources?” That’s not necessarily a Go-No Go question. It’s simply necessary to understand what steps may be needed to obtain additional human or other resources to implement the change.

The “R” asks if the change is Repeatable.  In other words, is it stated simply enough to be easily communicated among the people involved. A 1,500-page dissertation may provide a detailed plan to implement a change, but no one will be talking about that over lunch. A short, easy-to-remember statement, like “Four new products by Q4” can easily spread among people.

Finally, is the change Measurable? What ratios will change, or what will you count, to see how the change is progressing? How will you know if the change has been effective?

Communicate the Change

Poor communication is one of the most common complaints in organizations. If communication is important during normal operations, how much more important is it during change? The single most important thing people need to understand in order to get behind a change is, “Why?” When people really understand why a change is happening and buy into it, the rest is downhill. When you combine “why” with the empathy I wrote about last week it becomes a powerful motivator.

You also need to make the “what” clear. Your slogan needs to be understood before it will be repeatable. You don’t have to read the entire dissertation to everyone, but make sure everyone knows enough detail to make sense of what’s happening. Include the “how” and any clarifications around “who” and “where”, be sure to cover all that in your communication. Finally, “By When.” Setting a deadline makes the change more concrete and sets a tone for urgency.

Another important thing to communicate during change is the resources available to people to help them manage the change both professionally and personally. You may have teams of experts, either internal or consultants, available to help people professionally. You may also have an Employee Assistance Program available to help them manage stress. Be sure to communicate this as well as the Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why.

Align The Change

Check in with people to see how well aligned they are with the change. Alignment is different from “complyment.” When people comply, they may be doing it because you said so or because there is no alternative. When people align, they get behind the change with a positive attitude about the future.

Ask your people to rate their level of alignment on a scale of 1 – 10. If they say they’re less than 10, take some time to explore what’s keeping them from aligning. Is it a fear you can help them face, or do they need more clarification about the why? This is the opportunity to demonstrate your empathy with them and build their buy-in to you.

Inspect the Change

Build into your change management plan scheduled inspection points along the way. These are opportunities for you to check progress to see if things are on track. If they are, you have an opportunity to celebrate and congratulate. That’s always fun and motivating.

On the other hand, course correction is par for the course in most situations. Did you know that an airplane with a well-laid flight plan is off course over 90% of the time? Weather conditions, turbulence, and other factors cause it to get off track. However, the pilot receives continuous feedback and makes adjustments to get the plane back on the flight plan. Course correction provides learning opportunities and can build resilience among your team.

I wrote last week that creating positive change is the ultimate test of leadership according to leadership coach and author, John Maxwell, in his book Developing the Leader Within You 2.0.  If you seek to understand the fears and other factors that cause people to resist change, work to help gain buy-in, FORM, Communicate, Align, and Inspect your change, you will be far more successful at passing the test by creating that positive change.

Leading Change – Part 3

Creating positive change is the ultimate test of leadership according to leadership coach and author, John Maxwell, in his book Developing the Leader Within You 2.0. To create change you need buy-in.  “Buy-in” is a phrase that comes from the stock market. It means to purchase shares of a company by which you are not employed. So, you are willing to invest your hard-earned money to bet on the success of a company over which you have no control. You must certainly believe in the prospects of that company if you’re willing to do that. That’s how the phrase came to mean “agreement to support a decision or direction.” Creating change requires that key people buy-in to what you’re proposing with your change idea.

Here’s another interesting point from John Maxwell, “People buy into the leader, then the vision.” That’s what he calls “The Law of Buy-In” from his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.  If people believe in you, they are more likely to believe in the change you’re trying to create.

How do you get people to buy into you? One way is to demonstrate that you understand their fears associated with change. In my last two posts, I described four fears associated with change.

1. Fear of Awkwardness
2. Fear of Leaving Comfort Behind
3. Fear of Ridicule
4. Fear of Isolation

What are some things a leader can do to demonstrate sensitivity to these fears when introducing change?

Have a Good Reason

People want to understand the “Why?” We can see that from the title of Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.  Why are you considering this change? Change for change’s sake is not a good idea unless everyone is already bought into the idea and there is usually a creativity reason behind that.

The reason may be as urgent as a “burning platform,” which means the consequences of maintaining the status quo are so dire that change must be embraced. Or, the reason may be far less urgent but equally as important, like a huge opportunity that will bring growth and expansion to your organization.  In either case, people are much more likely to embrace the change when they understand why you are proposing it.

Review the Past

My family has moved several times. We’ve lived in 9 states and one foreign country (so far). Our youngest daughter, Janessa, builds strong friendships with a few people and has had a hard time leaving them when we’ve moved.

Each time we face a new neighborhood and school, she is afraid of not having any friends. We have encouraged her by asking her about the friends she just left behind. “Do you remember when we moved there,” we ask, “do you remember when you first met that friend? You didn’t even know they existed before that day, and now they’re such a good friend.” That will happen again. You will meet new friends and they will become close, too.

Reviewing the past can help face the future. Whether your team or organization has had a history of success to point to, or there has been failure,  the experience of the past can embolden people to face change. Pointing to the past tells people they can do it again. They can experience success or survive failure and be stronger for it, again.

Acknowledge the Pain

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck studied mindset in education. She has found there is a difference between the outcomes of students who have a “fixed mindset” and those who have a “growth mindset.” A fixed mindset believes that things like talent and intelligence are fixed and unchangeable. A growth mindset, on the other hand, believes that through dedication and work, these abilities can be developed and strengthened.

One key is to focus not on how “smart” a child is, but on the effort they put into a certain project. Effort more than outcome encourages growth. “Smart” is fixed, effort can be endless.  That’s why Dweck encourages focusing on effort, to encourage a growth mindset.

The point for our purpose is that when encouraging a growth mindset, we acknowledge that things will be difficult, but we never forecast failure. We say,  “this is going to be a challenge, but I know you/we can do it.” Acknowledging the pain demonstrates your credibility which gives people reason to believe in you. It also lets them know you believe in them.

These three things; having a good reason, reviewing the past, and acknowledging the pain will help alleviate the fears associated with change and set you up well for taking the next steps which we’ll talk about next week.

Leading Change – Part 2

Last week we left off in the middle of talking about four things people fear about change.  The first was that change makes people feel awkward and uncertain. The second was they tend to focus on what they will have to let go instead of what good the change may bring. That brings us to the other two fears that cause people to resist change.


On March 2, 1962, basketball great Wilt Chamberlain did something no one else had ever done. He scored 100 points in a single game. That night Chamberlain scored 28 of those points at the free-throw line (he made 28 out of 30). What’s significant about that is Chamberlain’s lifetime free throw average was 51 percent. What was different that night? He experimented that night with the “granny shot.” Instead of shooting his free throws from overhead like most people, he tried something that had made another NBA star, Rick Barry, very successful. He shot underhanded, swinging his shot up from between his knees. It worked.

Despite the success he experienced with this different way of shooting, Wilt Chamberlain gave up the “granny shot.” He went back to his old, much less successful shooting style. Why? In his own words from his autobiography, “I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded. I know I was wrong. I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way. Even now, the best one in the NBA, Rick Barry, shoots underhanded. I just couldn’t do it.” As I read about this story I didn’t see evidence that he was actually ridiculed. Nevertheless, his fear of ridicule drove him to make a very bad decision not to change.


During this year of pandemic, we’ve often heard the phrase, “We’re all in this together,” haven’t we? The lifestyle we’ve adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge, uncomfortable change. It was forced upon us by factors outside our control. Change like that tends to make people feel isolated, like they’re going through it alone. We human beings are programmed for community and interaction and isolation feels scary. During the pandemic, people have not only felt isolated by the change, many times we have been physically isolated. That’s why we keep hearing the reminder that we’re all in this together. It’s an attempt to calm the fear of isolation.

It doesn’t have to be a pandemic that may actually isolate us to make us feel isolated. When we are faced with a need to change, one that we didn’t initiate out of a desire to grow, we tend to internalize it and feel like we’re going through it alone. Even if the entire organization is going through the same thing, I can feel like nobody understands how this change is affecting my life. I can feel isolated and alone which is another reason people resist change.


Awkwardness and uncertainty, Letting go of something comfortable, fear of ridicule, fear of isolation. These are all real reactions to changes that come from outside us. If we want to lead change successfully, we would do well to acknowledge these feelings. We’ve felt them ourselves, after all, haven’t we? Understanding where resistance comes from will help us better introduce and navigate through change as leaders.

Next week, we’ll talk about how understanding these fears in our people can help us lead change more effectively.

Leading Change – Part 1

Here’s something I’ve often wondered about. According to Daniel Pink and others, people are intrinsically motivated by “mastery.” Mastery means getting better at things. There is an almost universally inherent desire, a drive if you will, to get better at things we enjoy. Yet, people also seem, almost universally, to hate change. How can both be true?  Winston Churchill said, “To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often.” Not all change is growth, but all growth is change. How can people drive for improvement and growth but, at the same time resist change?

I think John Maxwell is on to something when he wrote, “People do not naturally resist change; they resist being changed.” When the change is something I initiate because I see the benefits and it’s something I enjoy or at least want to improve, I’m all for it. But, if the change feels out of my control, or is being imposed on me, I resist. Maxwell writes about a two-frame cartoon in which the leader asks, “Who wants change?” and every hand is raised. But in the second frame, when he asks, “Who wants to change?” not one hand is raised.

We want the benefits of positive change, but don’t want the pain of making any changes ourselves. If we want our team or organization to grow or improve, that will require change. How do we as leaders create change? If our people feel like it’s being imposed on them, they will be resistant. How, then, do we lead change? A good starting place is to understand why people resist change. Here are two of four reasons to consider. (We’ll cover the others next week)

Awkward and Self-Conscious

I’d like you to try something. Fold your hands together with your fingers interlaced. Now, look at your hands. Which thumb is on top? No big deal, right? Now, reverse that. Interlace your fingers with the other thumb on top. How does that feel? Awkward, right? I’ll bet you even had to think for a second to do it. I use that exercise when I teach habit formation. So much of what we do is by habit and changing it feels unnatural and awkward. I’ll bet your first impulse when you interlaced your fingers the unnatural way was to switch back to what was comfortable.

Whenever we learn something new, it feels awkward and unnatural at first. If you’ve ever played a sport or an instrument you know what I mean. We do drills to turn awkward new skills into habits. When that happens, the skill you’re focusing on becomes part of your game or part of your music-making. It’s no longer awkward, it’s a habit.

The problem is that nobody likes to feel awkward especially in front of other people. We become self-conscious and embarrassed. That’s why people are often more comfortable with old problems than with new solutions. Author and speaker, Marilyn Ferguson put it like this, “It’s not so much that we are afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear … It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. there’s nothing to hold on to.”

What Will Be Lost

Our youngest son, Jordan, loves clothes. Every so often we’d see him come home wearing a new outfit. He loves bargains, too. He always brags about how little he paid for this or that article of clothing. One of his favorite clothing outlets is the Goodwill store. He finds all kinds of treasures there. Paying little means collecting a lot. One day, after seeing inside his closet and drawers, my wife informed him that he could no longer simply add to his collection. Now, “if you buy something, you have to get rid of something.” That actually put a stop to the new stuff for a while. He didn’t want to let go of anything.

People often fear change because they are focused on what they will have to give up. Authors Eric Harvey and Steve Ventura have written about this.

“The fact is, we all carry a certain amount of counterproductive cerebral baggage that weighs s us down … and hold s us back.

Our loads include everything from once valid beliefs and practices that have outlived their usefulness and applicability–to misinformation and misconceptions that we’ve accepted (and even embraced) without much examination or thought.

Why care about “baggage?” Because it negatively impacts us, the people we work with, the environment we work in, and the results we get. Simply stated, whatever we accept and believe determines how we behave…and how we behave determines what we achieve (or don’t achieve).

Their solution? “Our brains are like closets. Over time they are filled with things we no longer use–things that don’t fit. Every once in a while they need to be cleaned out.”

Harvey and Ventura are correct, of course, about the need to clear out the old stuff. The problem is that people don’t usually focus on the new stuff that might be better. They usually focus more on how hard it will be to give up their old stuff.

Question Yourself to Solutions

I was recently asked a question. “What would you do if you were told that you have to solve this problem by tomorrow or you would lose this 12 Million Dollar contract?” Interesting question. What would you do? I ran across a quote from Albert Einstein that seems appropriate. Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask. For once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes.”

Another Einstein quote might illuminate this a bit more. He said, “It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” Staying with problems longer and spending the first 55 minutes of the critical hour on the proper question tell me that Albert Einstein, a pretty intelligent guy, thought questions were important. In fact, If you’ll indulge me one more quote from the genius, he also said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” So, if we want to find a solution to our problem, we need to ask ourselves the right question. How do you find that?

5 Why’s

In the 1930’s Japanese industrialist, inventor, and founder of Toyota Industries, Sakichi Toyoda, developed the 5 Why’s problem-solving technique. The technique is in the name. You simply define a problem and ask why this problem exists 5 times until you find the appropriate counter-measure to prevent it in the future. The example given in a “Mind Tools” article is this:

Problem: Our client refuses to pay for leaflets we printed for him

Why #1 – the delivery was late so the leaflets couldn’t be used
Why #2 – the job took longer than we expected
Why #3 – we ran out of printer ink
Why #4 – the ink was all used on a larger, last-minute order
Why #5 – we didn’t have enough ink in stock and couldn’t order supplies in time.

Counter-Measure: find an ink supplier who can deliver at short notice so that we can continue to minimize inventory, reduce waste, and respond to customer demands.


In his book, Developing The Leader Within You 2.0, John Maxwell suggests six questions that will help us solve problems. Four of them are “who” questions. He calls them:

  • The Information question – Who knows the most about this problem? Don’t jump to conclusions or start “solving” the problem before you understand it as fully as possible.
  • The Experience question – Who knows what I need to know? “He that is taught only by himself has a fool for a mentor.” –playwright Ben Johnson. Is there someone who can mentor you through this problem?
  • The Challenge question – Who wants to tackle this problem? Who can do this is a good question. Who wants to do this, is a better one. The want to will often give a person an edge in finding solutions.
  • The Magnitude question – Who needs to buy in, and how long will that take? Often solutions have an impact on people’s work and lives. The bigger the problem, the more potential impact the solution may have. What pre-work do we need to do in preparing people for the solution?


Maxwell’s sixth question is “What questions do I need to ask myself?” The other day I decided to do an experiment. I called it “Running the Interrogatives.” I defined a problem and then I listed the six main English interrogatives: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. I began to mentally list as many “who” questions as I could about that problem. Then I did the same with”what” questions and so on.

Forcing myself to think of different questions under each interrogative made me look at the problem from different angles. One simple example is “Who contributed to creating this problem?” versus “Who is most impacted by this problem?” Those are almost opposite points of view. Then you have Maxwell’s four “who” questions and so on.

I began to understand why Einstien said he would spend so much of his critical hour searching for the proper question. Leaders tend to be action-oriented. Maybe great leaders pause to understand the question before offering an answer.

Hello, Opportunity, Nice to Meet You

In the last few posts, I’ve been talking about problems and what they do for us. They introduce us to ourselves. Problems introduce us to others. Now I want to talk about how problems introduce us to opportunities. I’m what I like to call a “word nerd.” One of the first things I do when I’m learning something or wanting to communicate an important point is to look up the words being used. Often the definitions open up new insight. I wondered if that might help with this topic.

What is a Problem? – a problem is “a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome”

OK. So, what’s an Opportunity? – an opportunity is “a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.”

Here’s how this one works. If you take opportunity’s “set of circumstances” and substitute it with problem’s “unwelcome or harmful situation” you get  “an unwelcome or harmful matter or situation that makes it possible to do something.” That’s how problems introduce us to opportunities. The problem, by definition, needs to be dealt with and overcome. In that way it not only makes it possible to do something, it requires us to do something. Whatever that something is, we would most likely not have done it without the problem.

In last week’s post, I talked about people who use problems as stepping stones to success. Am I one of those people? Are you?

Here are some examples of that kind of thinking.

Infectious Disease

Infectious diseases are a real problem. We know that all to well since the onset of COVID 19 almost a year ago. The story goes that Sir Alexander Fleming was working on a cure for diseases. He tried all kinds of things. Finally, in frustration, he threw away his petri dishes. A little later he noticed that mold was growing on those petri dishes. He also noticed that the mold was killing the bacteria. He started studying what he had found and the result was penicillin which has saved countless lives for over 100 years.

In this case, the solution was in what Fleming threw away. Don’t quit too early or you may miss the solution you’re looking for.  Don’t give up.

Burs on the Dog

If you have a dog and have ever gone hiking you know about burs. Those pesky little balls that stick in the dog’s fur. Even if you don’t have a dog, you know what I’m talking about because they stick to your socks, too. Well, a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral decided one day after a hike in the Alps, to look at those pesky burs under a microscope to see what made them stick so well. What he found was tiny hooks on the burs that allowed them to grab on to the loop weave of socks and to the dog’s fur. That discovery led to the invention of Velcro. Ever heard of it?

In this case, the very nature of the problem led to a world-changing invention. Study the problem. The very thing that makes it harmful or unwelcome, may be what makes it possible for you to change your world.

No More House

Three days after the election of 2008, the company I worked for laid me and six other highly compensated, newer employees off. No one was hiring then, at least in my industry. The housing crisis at that time expanded an industry called “property preservation.” It’s where you care for the inside and outside of foreclosed properties. I attempted to get into that industry but was unsuccessful. Unemployment didn’t cover my mortgage so I could see that in a few months I would be without a home. Long story short, I found a job outside my industry that moved us to China for a life-changing (in a good way) two-year experience.

In this case, the problem caused me to take action on something I never would have even considered under different circumstances. That led to a life-changing experience. Think outside the box. Color outside the lines. Try something different.

Some people don’t even talk about “problems.” They substitute the word “opportunity” because their mindset is on what possibilities that harmful or unwelcome matter presents.

Hello, Interesting to Meet You

Last week I quoted John Maxwell who said, “Problems introduce us to ourselves.” Problems are not usually something we face alone. So, problems not only introduce us to ourselves, they also introduce us to others. American novelist and retired physician, Tess Garritsen said, “There is no better test of character than when you’re tossed into crisis. That’s when we see one’s true colors shine through.” Garritsen was talking about how she develops characters in her stories, but it’s the real-life truth of that statement that makes characters compelling.

What do we learn about others when we face problems? There are, for example:

People who make problems worse

The question here is what’s in the person’s bucket? Are they carrying water or gasoline? Are they a fire-lighter or a fire-fighter? Some people seem to find joy in stoking fires to make them bigger. The most insidious of these are the arsonists posing as firefighters. These are the people who create or stoke a fire in order to appear as the hero who puts it out. These people are dangerous to any organization.

People make problems worse by their attitude. They are victims and constantly looking for someone to blame. People make problems worse by their emotions. They are hotheaded or negative. Either one is a detriment to progress. People make problems worse by their inaction or wrong action. They either freeze or head in the wrong direction. Either one trips everyone else up.

People who become problem magnets

In his book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell talks about “The Law of Magnetism” which states, “Who you are is who you attract.” If someone sees nothing but problems, guess what they get in life, more problems. If someone sees nothing but possibilities, guess what they get in life, more possibilities.

The problem with people who see nothing but problems is that they tend to attract more people who see nothing but problems. The first rule of holes is, when you’re in one, stop digging. We need people who can help us see potential pitfalls. But people who see nothing but pitfalls almost certainly begin to create them.

People who give up in the face of problems

Business Magnate, billionaire, and philanthropist Ross Perot said, “Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one-yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game one foot away from a winning touchdown.” Solutions are not always easy to find, but there is always a solution. People who give up wind up putting the problem back in your lap. If you wind up finding the solution, why do you need them?

Our company was asked to take over servicing several additional buildings. It was the Friday before service was to begin the next Monday when I learned we couldn’t find a piece of equipment we needed in each building in order to start servicing it. I personally walked through the six other buildings where the equipment was supposed to have been last seen to no avail. When we couldn’t find the equipment, one of my colleagues suggested we would have to delay the start. That wasn’t an option for me. I made a phone call and drove an hour away to pick up what we needed from our supplier. We started on time that Monday.

People who use problems as a stepping-stone for success

In their book, Cradles of Eminence, Victor and Mildred Goertzel wrote about their study of the backgrounds of more than four hundred highly successful men and women who would be recognized as brilliant in their fields. the list included Franklin D. Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Winston Churchill, Albert Schweitzer, Clara Barton, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, and Sigmund Freud. Here are some of their interesting findings:

  • Three-fourths of them as children were troubled by poverty, broken homes, or difficult parents who were rejecting, overly possessive, or domineering.
  • Seventy-four of the eighty-five writers of fiction or drama surveyed and sixteen of the twenty poets came from homes where they saw tense psychological drama played out between their parents.
  • More than one-fourth of the sample suffered physical handicaps, such as blindness, deafness, or other crippling disabilities.

What makes the difference between people who overcome such circumstances and people who are overcome by them? They didn’t see their problems as stumbling blocks. They saw them as stepping stones. They understood that problem solving was a choice, not a matter or circumstance.

When I train new or young leaders, I emphasize to them that they need to be solution finders because problem solving is the quickest way to gain leadership.