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 in Paris one day into the multi-billion dollar opportunity that is Uber and all its imitators.

This attitude to look for the opportunities in a situation is something that will enable you to find a way forward from anywhere. And, like anything else, it is a skill that can be learned.

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 his friend using a smartphone to order something online. Levi Strauss might have been crying over his unwanted tents when a Californian miner walked by, wearing ripped trousers.
    Serendipity is the attitude of mind that enables us to spot the opportunities around us, so we can all increase our serendipity by taking five minutes each night 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 instead of only noticing difficulties.
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  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.
    If our dreams don’t bring the answer, we can all increase our ability to connect with our intuition by writing Morning Pages.
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  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 by explicitly looking for what the opportunities might be.
    Alexander Fleming, for example, might have reframed his situation from saying “Oh no! Disaster! My experiment has failed!” to “That’s interesting… Something has 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 apply this approach, 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.
    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 passed through a mountain?” they created a multi-million dollar mineral water business!

These three abilities do not guarantee that you will find a world-changing transformation to every problem you face. But the more you develop these skills, the more you become 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 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 these three skills?


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

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Photo By Nicole Castanheira via StockPholio.net

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