Three ways to develop the key attitude of leadership

Woman drinking cup of coffee

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. This is the attitude that enabled Levi Strauss to turn a stack of ‘unsellable’ tents into the world’s first blue jeans. And, love him or hate him, this is the attitude that enabled Travis Kalanick to turn the ‘problem’ of not being able to get a cab one day into the multi-billion dollar opportunity that is Uber and all its imitators.

This attitude to find the opportunities will enable you to find a way forward out of any situation. And, like anything else, it is a skill that can be learned and developed.

We will never know exactly what happened in the three situations mentioned above, but it must surely have been one of three things:

  1. Chance, Synchronicity, or Serendipity
    Travis Kalanick might have given up all hope of ever getting a taxi when he noticed someone using a smartphone to order something online. Levi Strauss might have been crying over his unwanted tents when a Californian miner wearing ripped trousers walked by.
    We can all increase our ability to notice the opportunities around us by taking five minutes at the end of each day to think of three to five things that have gone well that day. This gets us into the habit of noticing what is going well as well as noticing difficulties.
  2. Intuition
    The inventor of the sewing machine is said to have solved the problem of how to make the needle work during a dream. James Cameron had the ideas for Terminator and Avatar in the same way.
    We can all increase our ability to connect with our intuition by writing Morning Pages.
  3. 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 emotionally and explicitly look for what the opportunities might be.
    Alexander Fleming, for example, might have reframed his situation from saying “My experiment has failed!” to “Something prevented the bacteria from growing…” He might then have asked himself, “Who would find it useful to have ‘Something that prevents bacteria from growing’?”
    To achieve this for yourself, first reframe the way you describe what is happening to make it more general. Then ask yourself where or for whom this might be an opportunity.
    Engineers building a train tunnel in Japan faced a massive problem with water leaking into the tunnel. When they asked themselves, “Who would find it useful to have water that has been filtered through a mountain?” they created a multi-million dollar mineral water business!

These three abilities do not guarantee that you to find a world-changing transformation to every problem you face. But the more you develop these skills, the more likely you are to be able to make the best of whatever situations arise.

How often do you take the time to notice what is going well for you as well as what is going wrong? How easily are you able to connect with your intuition to find solutions? Are you facing a problem today that someone else would find useful? Would it be beneficial to you if you practiced these three skills more?

Adapted from Inner Leadership: tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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Photo By Nicole Castanheira via

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