Three ways to develop the key attitude of leadership

The key attitude that defines leadership is the ability to see a problem as an opportunity.

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 its imitators. This is the attitude that enabled Alexander Fleming to turn a ‘failed’ lab experiment into life-saving penicillin. And this is the attitude that enabled Levi Strauss to turn a stack of ‘unsellable’ tents into the world’s first blue jeans.

This is also the attitude that will enable you to find a way forward from whatever difficulties you find yourself in. And, like anything else, it is a skill that can be learned.

We will never know exactly what happened in the three cases outlined 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 cab 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 natural intuition by writing Morning Pages.
  3. Actively Treating the Problem as an Opportunity
    Rather than seeking to change or avoid a situation it we can also simply change the way that we respond to it. To achieve this, 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.
    For example, Alexander Fleming 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’?”
    If you are facing a problem today, can you generalise the situation you face, then ask yourself, “Who would find this useful?”?
    Engineers faced with a leaking tunnel in Japan did this. They bottled the leaking (mineral) water, turning a ‘problem’ into a $50m 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.