Leaders Solve Hard Problems

By | September 4, 2019

[September 4, 2019] Leadership is not easy; it means taking on complex, ambiguous, and difficult problems. These are closely tied to our deepest values and we are limited by cultural mores and social responsibilities.  Solutions can be slow and are often fraught with unintended consequences.

When the government gets involved, it can bring enormous resources to bear; a huge advantage. This big stick does not guarantee success. For example, the U.S. government has thrown everything at solving high suicide rates among veterans, curing cancer and other terrible diseases, and preventing forest fires.  These problems have been around so long; we hardly think about them disconnected from government intervention.

Powerful or popular leaders also don’t have the answers.  John the Baptist couldn’t save the sinners, Hitler and Stalin couldn’t conquer the world, and Joe Paterno couldn’t win all his football games.  Solutions, especially long-term solutions to the greatest problems, seem impossible to the casual observer.  Easier, shorter-term, feel-good solutions are substituted and can these can boomerang to hurt.

There are formalized and proven leadership processes that help as a useful tool.  The military uses the Military Decision Making Process, and it is very useful by laying out a clear logical path. Like other processes, however, it fails to work in unique situations when creativity is needed most.  Even the military admits shortcomings and is working to modify the MDMP but, so far, has been unable to do so.

If leadership were easy, it would not be leadership but a simple habit. Want to be a great leader? Then the first thing to understand is that your life will be all about leadership. There is no part-time leadership; it’s all or nothing.  It’s hard.  It requires sacrifice.  And leadership can be as rewarding as it is frustrating at times.

Only a very few can slay the dragon and rescue the princess.  Only the rare, gifted person can convert chaos of the world into a predictable order.  War, terrorism, famine, great catastrophes, the drug crisis, poverty, species extinction, and moral decay; chaos has been around since the beginning of humankind continue to plague us at every turn.

We rely on technology and gimmicks to pull us through, but in the end, it will be good old-fashioned leadership.  Only leadership can overcome the chaos to help pull us through the bad times and show us the path in the good.


Note: See a different spin on this idea from an article I wrote three years ago called, “Senior Leaders Solve Difficult Problems” at this link: https://www.theleadermaker.com/senior-leaders-solve-difficult-problems/

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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

21 thoughts on “Leaders Solve Hard Problems

  1. Xerxes I

    The average person has no idea how “hard” really difficult problems are. It surpasses their understanding of the level of difficulty and thus the need for truly strong, resilient leaders. Such is not gained from simple decision making at the most base level but from decades of hardcore experience in greater increasing problem solving.

      1. Scotty Bush

        Yes, welcome aboard, ZB22 (whatever that means?).

  2. Eric Coda

    Thank you Gen. Satterfield for today’s article. I passed it along to my girlfriend and her friends. I like to see what others think of pieces like this one.

  3. Georgie B.

    Hmmmmm, making hard decisions is the bane of leaders. I wonder what we would do without great leaders over time in our society? Well, I for one will support them. As hard as I might try, I don’t have the creative juices or intelligence or experience to make tough decisions on a large scale. That is what makes the difference in a great leader and a so-so leader. You can see for yourself what so-so leaders do. Just look at the upcoming US election for president.

    1. Shawn C. Stolarz

      Georgie, yes, I think many of them are just “throwing mud on the wall” as solutions to hard problems. To them, it’s not about a workable solution but a feel-good proposal.

  4. Harry Donner

    Job well done with this article. I would like to see more like this in the future. How do we make hard decisions? That is one of the top 10 most difficult questions to answer. We can outline some rough ideas but we must first change the way we think if we are to really go deep into hard, complex problems.

    1. Ronny Fisher

      Yes, and that also applies to everyday, simple problems. The first thing to do is to open your mind to the alternatives and use both logic and gut instinct.

    2. Yusaf from Texas

      Harry, well put. If it were easy, we all could do it and the idea of leadership would not exist. Philosopher? Perhaps.

    1. Eva Easterbrook

      As Nobel-prize winning economist Milton Friedman wrote: “The best measure of quality thinking is your ability to accurately predict the consequences of your ideas and subsequent actions.”

  5. Army Captain

    The US military is always working hard to find better ways of solving hard problems. Part of the solution is training of leaders in current, proven methods. Another way is to encourage them to be creative. Either way, it takes hard work and focus to solve problems.

    1. Dale Paul Fox

      I agree Army Captain. The MDMP process that Gen. Satterfield writes about here is difficult and requires, usually, a small staff that is trained and experienced in its use. At least that is what I remember talking with my Battalion Commander back a few years ago.

        1. Scotty Bush

          “Skilled leaders have discovered ways throughout history to take advantage of ambiguity.”

  6. Gil Johnson

    Yes, I agree with Nick that today’s article was excellent. You are working on being some kind of philosopher perhaps? Keep it up. 👍

  7. Nick Lighthouse

    Excellent blog article. Thanks Gen. Satterfield. Well done!

    1. JT Patterson

      Nick, that is why I keep coming back to the website on leadership. Simple (meaning to the point), entertaining, and worthwhile. I find this to be my normal routine each morning ….. to read this site and a few others I have marked on my computer.

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