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01 FEBRUARY 2021
How do great leaders solve problems?

by Jeff Haden: Bestselling non-fiction ghostwriter, speaker and columnist for Inc.com.

Legendary music producer Rick Rubin's approach to solving problems is one every leader should embrace.

When a question comes up, you jump in. Leaders are supposed to have all the answers. When a situation is unclear, you jump in. Leaders are supposed provide clarity and focus.

When you're in charge and a problem occurs, you jump in. Leaders are supposed to fix problems.

But do you always have the best answer? The perfect insight? The best solution?

Usually not.

Rick Rubin is the co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, the former president of CBS Records, and a legendary music producer who has worked with artists like the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Tom Petty, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Johnny Cash.

In Brian Koppelman's (the co-creator of Billions) podcast The Moment, Rubin described how his problem-solving process evolved:

There will be a problem to solve, and usually I will come up with a solution to the problem. In the old days, I would say, "OK, here's the problem, here's how we're going to fix it, let's fix it," and we move on.

Now, I'll say, "Here's the problem. What are we going to do?"

Nine times out of 10, the solution the artist comes up with is better than the solution I had. I usually have a solution in the background, just in case, but more often than not.. through discussion, a better decision comes up than my knee-jerk reaction.

How do great leaders solve problems?

Smart people are naturally better at constructing convincing arguments that support things they believe to be true.

That's because smart people tend to be better at "gist reasoning," using intuition, formed by experience, to sift through complicated details and get to the heart of a matter.

Smart people also tend to be in charge. (Hopefully.)

So for many people who are in charge and think they have the answer, wanting to jump in is natural. After all, jumping in is efficient and expedient. Time is always of the essence, and things need to get done or fixed. Now.

Others take a slightly softer approach. They decide to ask for input.

But, since they feel they already know the right answer, they ask limiting questions. They ask leading questions that assume a particular answer. Or they ask an either/or question that presupposes one of two answers - and no other potential answers.

I've definitely done that. Years ago, I came up with a plan to move two crews to a different shift rotation to get a better process flow. When I talked to an operator about my idea, I said, "I've run the numbers, and overall productivity should go up by at least 10 percent. What do you think?"

A month or so later, when we all realised my plan didn't work, he admitted he had reservations he didn't share. Even if he had, I might not have taken them seriously.

It's easy to hear but not actually listen to other people's ideas or answers when you're too busy presuming you are right.

They ask a different question

Rubin's approach is to simply present a problem, optimally in a sentence or two. You can too. For example:

  • "We're struggling to meet ship dates. What do you think we should do differently?"
  • "Our error rate is up significantly. What do you think we should do to improve quality?"
  • "I don't feel like I'm connecting with certain people on my team. If you were me, what would you do?"

By asking a question and keeping your own ideas or opinions to yourself, you accomplish two things. One, you truly give other people the opportunity to be heard. Even if you don't go with their input, still: They walk away feeling they were able to contribute, and that their opinion is valued.

Two, you'll probably get better ideas or solutions than whatever you had in mind.

Which means everyone wins: You, because you'll reach a better decision, and your employees, because now you will get the opportunity to praise and recognise them for their creativity, judgment, and skill.

Bottom line? You already know what you know. What you need to know is what other people know.

So describe a problem, ask for input, and then stay quiet and listen.

You never know what you might learn.

Useful resources:

BlackBird Media
Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry from forklift driver to manager of a 250-employee book plant. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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