Using Problem Solving To Create a More Positive Culture

Occasionally an insight occurs.  One morning I had a small idea.  As I pondered it, it seemed to grow in importance.  The insight is that leadership is a category that is inclusive of management but management is category that is exclusive of leadership.  You can be a manager and not be a leader.  You may be a leader but you must still manage.

For years I have made a differentiation between a management mentality and a leadership mentality.  Managers are continually problem solving.  They thus spend most of their time logically reacting to the disruptions around them.  Identity becomes shaped by what the manager does.  Self-worth becomes determined by ability to solve difficult problems.  In some cultures this leads to the emergence of a strange loop.  In order for managers to become valued, they need problems.  The need to solve problems can actually lead to embracing patterns that cause problems.

In contrast I have often pointed out that leaders transcend ego.  While a manager is determined by the culture, a leader becomes a creator of the culture.  A leader sees the dynamic, human system and seeks to make the system more positive today than it was yesterday.  A leader is in the business of continuous, constructive, culture change.  When a manager becomes a leader, the person moves from problem solving to purpose finding.  That is, the leader discovers and articulates the highest, common good.  The leader then acts so as to attract the people into the co-creation of a more positive culture.  Everyone wins.

Now here is the important implication of the insight that leadership is inclusive of management.  A manager may become a leader but the expectations to manage and solve problems doesn’t end.  The difference between managers and leaders is not if they do problem-solving, but how they solve problems.

Leaders use a different lens, or approach to solve their problems.  A manager uses logic and imagination as governed by the ego.  A leader uses logic and imagination as governed by the conscience.   The leader transcends ego and behaves according to the higher purpose.  This means working harder, expending more energy in the selfless pursuit of a higher good.

If, for example, a manager has to do the dreadful task of downsizing, the manager does his or her duty and solves the problem.  The manager seeks out the corporate policy for downsizing and then implements it.  The existing policy is typically designed by legal and HR to protect the company.  The policy does not exist to create a more positive culture.  So the policy tends to injure the people to be fired, the people who are not fired, and the manager who implements the policy.  Everyone loses.

When a leader has to do the dreadful task of downsizing, the leader begins with the highest purpose and the question of how to solve the problem in a way that will create a more positive culture.  The leader sees the need to serve those who are being fired, those who will stay, and also the leader.  The leader is looking for a win-win solution in a context where no win-win solution appears possible.  This orientation requires personal work that is not required of the manager.  Consider an example.

In the recent past I shared an account of a leader who downsized 25% of his workforce.  When the downsizing meeting was over, the people who were fired, and those who were not fired, all stood and gave the leader a standing ovation.  When I share this account with managers, they tell me that it is not possible, and demand an explanation.  I refuse to answer.

Instead, I give them five minutes in groups and instruct them to come up with the answer.  They always do.  The theory of positive leadership and the creation of social excellence is already embedded in the managers.  Yet it is seldom surfaced or examined.  Every manager is a leader in embryo.  Every manager is a person with the potential to transform.  Every manager has the potential to turn problem solving into a tool for creating a more positive culture.   The key is learning to use higher purpose as the arbiter of all your planning and actions.


  • What does this mean to you; “A manager is not a leader but a leader is still a manager?”
  • How does one solve problems in a way that creates a more positive culture?
  • How does one get a standing ovation from the people he just fired?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



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