If you buy the assertion that leadership is about unlocking and igniting more than it’s about actually doing the work (and please, please do buy this assertion), then at its core, leadership becomes largely about solving problems. Whether it’s about understanding and removing obstacles, ensuring tools and information are made available as needed, or effectively empowering a team to be able to do what’s expected of them, a leader should always be laser-focused on finding those team-inspiring solutions. And finding solutions is hard work.

UNLESS… the word “solution” is the problem.

I was talking to a leader the other day – we’ll call her Sue.  Sue had approached me with great concern about the state of her team. They’re busy and burning out; they’re exhausted… and yet somehow delivering only the bare minimum. Something clearly isn’t working at work.

So the other day, one of her team members suggested that Sue sit down with him, review his calendar, and make suggestions around what he might opt out of in order to free up some of his time. And Sue’s reply: “I don’t think that’s really the solution.”

Ah… The Solution…is this actually our problem?

I shared with Sue a story I’d recently heard. It was about a man who – after many failed efforts at losing 100 pounds – had finally found a path to sustainable success. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t a magic diet. It was a massive mindset shift. His big aha was this: He finally stopped trying to lose the mind-boggling total of 100 pounds. Instead, he set out on a quest to lose 1 pound. And then repeat that victory 99 times.

A physically fit and somewhat perplexed Sue eyed me warily. Fair enough. But here was my point: If we – as leaders – continue to challenge ourselves to find The Solution, then we will continue to be disappointed. Because solutions are all around us – often disguising themselves in 1 pound increments.

Because solutions are all around us – often disguising themselves in 1 pound increments.

Did I believe that Sue’s sitting down with her team member and making some adjustments to his calendar would solve the issue of overwork and burnout? Nope. But did I think it could have the potential to be that first pound, that first tiny victory upon whose momentum they might build? Sure did.

As leaders, we want to feel capable of saving the day. But as Dustin McKissen tells us here in his column in Inc., leadership is courage. And it takes great courage to acknowledge that today we will take only one small step toward The Solution.

For me, leadership is the willingness and ability to acknowledge that

  • The Solution may really be a bunch of tiny incremental improvements that add up to something inspiring
  • Tiny solutions can be wholly unsexy in every way
  • Math (i.e, the ability to add up lots of tiny solutions – with a lowercase “s”) is a critical leadership skill

So Sue… and all you leaders out there: take a break from seeking The Solution. And just ask your team – What is one small thing I can do for you today that may take us one step closer to our definition of success?

And then enjoy a cookie. After all – you don’t have to lose all 100 pounds at once!