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Symptoms vs Illnesses in Leadership – What’s The Real Challenge?


One day, you wake up from a (hopefully) restful sleep and discover your body is covered in little red bumps. Not the way to start the day! Even before you’ve downed that critical first cup of coffee, you do a rapid Google-diagnosis to find out what’s going on. That likely won’t reap much reward or insight, so after a few hours of fussing and scratching, you call your doctor’s office and make an urgent appointment to get this problem gone ASAP. 

Once at the doctor’s office (and the obligatory wait), the doctor looks at your irritating bumps and then might ask you several questions: 

“What was the last thing you ate?” 

“What’s been different in your life lately that might contribute to this?” 

“What other or similar symptoms have you been experiencing recently?” 

They might also take your temperature, check your vital signs, or even direct you to a blood test.  

Here’s the lesson; the doctor’s role is not simply treating the symptom. Their role is to uncover and understand the underlying illness causing the little red bumps. Once that has been identified, then the course of treatment is determined. They are not going to simply take a look at your bumps and throw you some nasty cream that might temporarily make the symptom go away with no confidence that it won’t return in the future.  

The doctor’s role is to determine the problem you both want to solve, and then set the best path to solve that problem. 

OK, now it’s time to take this story out of the examination room and into the boardroom! 

Here’s a common example we hear about in the world of leadership from the leaders and teams we work with that connects these stories. 

Fluency – “What’s the biggest challenge you face in your leadership right now?”
Client – “I have too many meetings! I just don’t have the time to get things done.” 

In this case, the client is describing too many meetings as the illness. In their minds, this is the underlying challenge, and they don’t know how to solve it. It constantly eats at them and is their unwelcome 3:00 am wakeup call. 

When we did a big survey of communications and marketing leaders in 2023, the most pressing challenge identified was “Time and Resource Management” by a pretty wide margin. 

In coaching and team conversations, we go beyond the observed symptom that is presented. We get out our metaphorical coaching stethoscope and dig to get a deeper understanding of what’s creating the symptom of too many meetings and not enough time. 

The real illness could be: 

  • Setting boundaries and sticking to them. 
  • Unclear priorities within the team and the leadership level in the organization. 
  • Ineffective delegation and the inability to develop/grow the team. 
  • Misaligned roles and responsibilities within the team or with cross-functional teams. 

We observe many leaders running around treating symptoms without doing the deeper, lasting work of identifying the underlying illness. In the rush and urgency of a persistent or present challenge, they reach for the most immediate and available solution. But it’s not a long-lasting solution unless it’s getting down to the real challenge. 

So, no matter the symptom you are facing right now in your leadership, here are three things you have raging agency over that can help you uncover the underlying illness and solve your problem. 

What’s The Real Challenge? 

If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem.
and five minutes thinking about solutions.” 

Albert Einstein 

Wise words from one of the biggest brains in the history of the world. It’s a quotable and powerful insight that often shows up in our coaching conversations and team development sessions. One of the most significant losses of productivity and efficiency in the workplace is chasing the wrong problem. Leaders and teams often struggle to get curious and ask critical questions to understand what’s going on and what problem they need to solve. We get it; leadership is challenging, and the pace of play in the work world is ever-accelerating. However, sage and sound leaders are the ones who spend the right amount of time diagnosing the challenge before they whip out the most readily available treatment or course of action.  

Change Your Elevation 

The higher your altitude, the more you see.  

When we are trying to solve a sticky problem, we need elevate to a level where we have a broad view of the situation. Think of Google earth as the metaphor…if we are too zoomed in, we will miss important connections and the long-term view.  If we are too zoomed out, we might lose clarity and lack fidelity or details.  We need to put ourselves at a level where we see the whole picture to make those critical connections, see further, and make better decisions. Simply looking at a few meetings in your calendar and deciding which ones to cancel is too zoomed in. Elevate up and think about how your time is being allocated in a given week. Which critical priorities are utilizing that time? Where  do you need to be to add the most value and solve the most important issues? That elevation can help you see what you need to see to build a lasting solution.  

Building Solutions That Stick 

Making meaningful change that lasts and has impact is elusive. We act with pace and urgency because we feel the pressure of time and the voices of others. But nothing is more demotivating than applying a solution and finding out that it didn’t stick. It sucks the life out of you. Taking the time to fully plan meaningful change, based on a thorough diagnosis and a broad view of the challenge, reaps so many rewards in the long game of leadership. That’s our goal. And the prize is worth the work. 

We offer these insights as a fundamental reframe for leaders to solve illnesses, not symptoms. By taking the time, making the space, and asking the right questions, we can solve the problems and unlock our potential as leaders. 

What symptom are you currently treating without an understanding of the underlying illness? 

What questions could you ask to better understand your challenge? 

What would a meaningful and lasting solution to your problem do for you and your team? 

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