We have seen how the key attitude that defines leadership is the ability to see a problem as an opportunity.
This is the attitude that enabled Alexander Fleming to turn a ‘failed’ lab experiment into life-saving penicillin and Levi Strauss to turn a stack of ‘unsellable tents’ into the world’s first blue jeans. This is the attitude that enabled Travis Kalanick to turn the ‘problem’ of not being able to get a cab in Paris one day into the multi-billion dollar opportunity that is Uber and all its imitators.
This attitude, of looking for the opportunities, will enable you to find a way forward out of any situation. And, like anything, it can be learned.
We will never know exactly what happened in the three situations described above but it must surely have been one of these three things:
- Chance, Synchronicity, or Serendipity
Levi Strauss might have been crying over his unwanted tents when a Californian miner wearing ripped trousers walked by. Travis Kalanick might have given up all hope of ever finding a taxi when he noticed his friend using a smartphone to order something online.
Serendipity is the attitude of mind that enables us to spot the opportunities around us.
We can all increase our serendipity by taking five minutes at the end of each day to remember what has gone well that day. This gets us into the habit of noticing what is going well (instead of just problems), which makes us more likely to spot new opportunities when they arise.
James Cameron had the ideas for Terminator and Avatar in dreams. The inventor of the sewing machine solved the problem of how to make the needle work in the same way.
We might not always be able to dream a solution but we can increase our ability to draw on our intuition by using Morning Pages.
- Actively Treating the Problem as an Opportunity
Rather than seeing a situation as a problem we can also change the way we respond to it by explicitly looking for what the opportunities might be.
Alexander Fleming, for example, might initially have thought, “Oh no! Disaster! My experiment has failed!” But by changing that to thinking, “That’s interesting… Something has prevented the bacteria from growing…” he enabled himself to ask, “Who would find it useful to have ‘Something that prevents bacteria from growing’?”
Changing our emotional response changes the solutions we find.
To do this, first reframe the way you describe your ‘problem’ to make it more general. Then ask yourself where or for whom this might be an opportunity.
For example, when engineers in Japan were building a train tunnel through a mountain they faced a massive problem with leaking water. When they asked themselves, “Who would find it useful to have ‘water that has leaked through a mountain’?” they created a multi-million dollar mineral water business.
These three skills do not guarantee that you will find a world-changing transformation to every problem you face. But the more you develop them, the more you will develop the attitude of mind that will enable you to lead yourself and others out of whatever situation arises.
How often do you take the time to notice what is going well for you, as well as what is going wrong? How readily do you call on your intuition to find solutions? Are you facing a problem today that someone else would find useful? Would it be useful for you to develop any of these three skills?
Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.
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