I love mental games – solving problems that require the exercise of logic and the ability to get into the mind of the problem’s creator (understanding the sometimes-obscure reasoning that underlies all the issues related to finding a solution). Crosswords, Sudoku, and the Rubik’s Cube, amongst many others, require one’s mental freedom to be able to explore many different options simultaneously to find the most appropriate, or “correct”, solution. I can complete some crosswords without using word-finder technology, I usually can ace Sudoku, but I find Rubik’s Cube rather challenging – you seemingly must go backward to move forward to get all the colours finally in the right places.

Erno Rubik, a Hungarian sculptor and architect, originally created the cube as a learning exercise to teach his students about three-dimensional spaces. Little did he know that his “Magic Cube” (as he first named it) would become one of the world’s most “famous and well-loved puzzles of all time”. The cube can be frustrating at times, however, and I have often thought, whilst watching others complete the cube successfully and relatively quickly, about sabotaging it – what if I peeled off just one little yellow square and carefully replaced it with a blue square? People would click the cube around and around and never complete it – a rather wicked thought, so I have never done it!

In our complex world, unfortunately, leaders (national and business) must face and find solutions for problems that don’t have nice and neat solutions like Rubik’s Cube. Most challenges involve people and, when people are involved, there are typically no “right” solutions for everyone. Whatever choices are made, some won’t appreciate them, and some may even be hurt by them. Knowingly or unknowingly, leaders can easily fall into one or both of two traps:

  • Oversimplifying the problem – not getting to grips with all the facts and feelings that created the issue in the first place
  • Oversimplifying the solution – producing a solution that is either incomplete or ineffective at achieving the desired objective

A phrase that is frequently used by many and one which maybe represents an oversimplified solution is: “People just need jobs”. Eradicating poverty and mobilising the workforce is much more complex requiring a multi-dimensional approach – as such, needing good and fair governance, an aggressive growth policy, investment, wise spending, no corruption, leadership example and care, training, good education, opportunities for all without prejudice, culture change, etc. The list of elements that comprise the solution is endless. There are no simple answers or solutions to many of the issues that we face.

As leaders, however, there are fundamental building blocks that need to be in place to co-create solutions of efficacy, viz.:

  1. Create a climate of trust – citizens or employees need to have faith in their leadership based on consistency, character, and competence. Leaders are watched all the time and they need to behave themselves into a position of trustworthiness – unquestionable credibility.
  2. Create a culture of inclusion – value all and encourage diversity in all its forms, but especially of thought. Co-creation breeds a strong sense of belonging and a will to contribute more frequently.
  3. Create open and safe communication channels – start by listening well and expressing empathy. Continue by reflecting for understanding. Acknowledge the ideas of others. Always give recognition when appropriate.
  4. Create opportunities to share a common cause – why we exist, our vision, our common purpose, the “big picture”, and our preferred future reality need to be clear in the minds of everyone. A blurred vision confuses and causes participation paralysis.
  5. Create chances for demonstrating care – real care comes from the heart, but it needs to be enacted. Identify with pain, frustration, and hardship in practical ways. Be there when your people need you. When you do arrive, be fully present.

Leaders should caution themselves against falling into the similar traps of oversimplification of problems and oversimplification of solutions. They should rather focus on growing the foundational leadership building blocks and solicit the help of their people in finding effective solutions that meet everyone’s needs.

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