I have always been a big fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Early on I remember finding them in the mystery section of my local bookstore, but thinking they weren’t like any mysteries I was accustomed to reading. There was bad behavior, but no gratuitous violence or gore. Instead, I found gentle commentaries on human nature by Mma Ramotswe, the very wise founder of the agency. Her gift was to see, but overlook, the flaws in others. I can’t think of a better way to describe the series than this quote on McCall Smith’s home page, “20 Years of Kindness. Humour. Forgiveness and Sheer Joy.”
Another of my favorites series, The Sunday Philosophy Club, also features a female detective, but one whose profession is actually philosopher and editor of a philosophy journal. In each story, despite a myriad of other responsibilities, Isabel Dalhousie is recruited by someone in need to solve a mystery.
McCall Smith recently issued some words of wisdom about solving problems from both these series which provide excellent advice for leadership.
From Mma Ramotswe, a reminder that “problems have a way of solving themselves.” I’m not sure they solve themselves, but they are solved by the people involved. They may start out thinking they need help but will find a solution if left to their own devices. If we act too quickly we will short-circuit their learning process. Allowing them to struggle a little may result in a more creative solution that they will own for the long-term. What is needed are the right prompts to facilitate solving the problem.
I can think of two examples of this kind of support for problem-solving from my own leadership experiences. Many years ago, I interviewed a young woman for the job of assistant to the president. Since she would be a critical member of my leadership team, I asked her to describe her leadership experience and style. “People regard me as a leader,” she said. “I’m not sure why, except that I ask the right questions.” I hired her.
Early in my first presidency I had an extraordinary board chair. When I would present him with a problem and describe the solutions I was considering, he would ask, “Have you thought about?” and name another possibility. I quickly learned that he only meant it as a possibility, not as the preferred solution. That was up to me. Sometimes I chose his idea, and sometimes not. Sometimes my solution worked and sometimes it didn’t. He held me accountable without judging. My leadership grew immeasurably under his guidance.
According to Dalhousie, the ability to solve a problem depends on one’s perspective and the ability to “look at things from above.” I saw a play reading today about a young black student who is suspended from school for pushing a teacher. When he tries to describe the experience that triggered his rage to his mother, a high school teacher, she immediately explains why the teacher did what he did. At least at that moment, she is unable to step out of her teacher role and hear her son’s pain. As leaders, we are challenged to step out of our roles so that we can genuinely hear other perspectives. We need empathy to facilitate problem solving.
I look forward to more lessons from these women – and the pleasure of reading the novels in which they are packaged.