Let’s just be direct about this one: As leaders, we like to think we know the answers…but we really don’t.

That’s not to say that you’re somehow lacking in what you do. Yes, you are clever and talented and good-looking and kind to puppies and blah, blah, blah. But believe it or not, there are some problems that are far, far bigger then even you or I in all our business perfection. There are indeed problems that we can’t handle by ourselves. There are problems to which we don’t know the answer. And unless we learn to be open-minded about this, and a great many other things, those problems will plague every waking moment.

What’s more, those problems will exist long after you are gone.

Wicked problems

Keith Grint, professor of public leadership and management at Warwick Business School, explains that the most complicated problems—wicked problems, as he styles them—simply cannot be solved by any one individual. More to the point, these wicked problems can’t be solved even with your brilliance.

What’s the solution, then, to these complicated problems? It starts with having an open mind.

Open your mind

First, you have to accept that what I said earlier is absolutely true: you can’t always work it out by yourself. This is perhaps one of the more difficult lessons that we leaders have to learn. Because of our position, we are wired to make decisions and solve problems. Having an open mind and realising that some problems are bigger than you are can be an important step toward actually solving those problems.

Second, you have to accept that a collaborative approach is sometimes the best solution to these impossible problems. Again, that takes an open mind. You have to be willing to hear different views—some drastically different than your own. You have to be willing to acknowledge that someone else may be able to see the solution that you couldn’t. And you have to be willing to take advantage of the benefits of working in collaboration with others. If that doesn’t take an open mind, I don’t know what does.

Third, you have to accept that there may be a number of possible solutions to the problem at hand. That certainly takes an open mind. We are so conditioned by our education to see things as right or wrong—as having only one answer—that we sometimes find it hard to perceive multiple valid solutions. It’s like wearing blinkers to the world. We can see the problem from one angle and one angle only. In doing so, we miss the nearly infinite number of other angles that are available to us and the solutions they may hold. When you open your mind, you take off the blinkers and begin to see the problem from all sides.

And fourth, you have to accept that you may need each and every one of those possible solutions to keep the wicked problem at bay. Again, we are conditioned to expect that there is only one possible solution to the problem (like 1+1=2). We have to open our minds and take hold of the reality that some problems won’t go down without implementing a multi-pronged approach. Sometimes we have to attack from different sides in order to be victorious. Realising that cold hard fact requires an open mind.

The first step

Opening your mind can be a difficult process, especially after years of doing it the other way. But don’t fret. Getting started is actually easier than you think.

All it takes is for you to close your mouth, open your ears, and listen. That’s right, the path to an open mind starts in your ears. Start asking others about your wicked problems and then listen—really listen—to what they have to say. Get your team together and turn them loose. Sure, you can guide the meeting, but make sure you listen more than you talk. You’ll be surprised at the insights that can come from a group discussion about the problem at hand.

Soon you’ll realise that vanquishing the wicked problems that rear their ugly heads isn’t a task suited for a single champion. Rather, these seemingly-unsolvable problems are bested by the good of a group—an army, if you will. You can be the leader of that army if you start to have an open mind.

Get out there and listen

So what problem have you been trying to solve alone that needs an open mind? What problem have you been trying to solve that needs a fresh approach? What problem have you been trying to solve that needs an army to conquer it?

Identify what it is and then get out there and listen.

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Peter Anderton

Author: Peter Anderton

A sought after coach and change agent, Peter has spent many years in Organisational Development, focusing on developing high performance leadership teams, executive coaching, strategy and change. He builds relationships quickly and is as comfortable in the boardroom as he is at ‘grass roots’. Known for his integrity, energy and a real passion for making things happen, he has a uniquely direct yet supportive style that delivers.

Peter is a qualified NLP master practitioner, a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and a Chartered Engineer.