What's the opportunity in the problem? - SmartBrief

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What’s the opportunity in the problem?

What we don't like in other people is often what we're guilty of, too. How can we find the opportunity in the problem of human fallability?

7 min read


What's the opportunity in the problem?

Pexels image/SmartBrief illustration

I follow many people online because I’m a fan of their work and want to know what they’re up to. These are often writers, sometimes podcasters, YouTubers, actors or business experts, and so forth. 

They bring into the world thoughtful exploration, great products or joyful entertainment. I learn a lot from these people even when their work isn’t in my wheelhouse and even when I disagree with their conclusions or perspectives.

Unfortunately, like billions of us — myself included —  these people are posting on social media, and there’s a good and bad to that. The bad is that they can reveal themselves as more shallow and closed-off than I would have imagined from their work.

It’s not about disagreement; I can handle that, or ignore it if I must. What drives me nuts is the inanity of the commentary that’s clearly meant to be deep and insightful — the opposite of what I like about their formal output. Or maybe it’s the cruelty or callousness of their responses to things that offend them (even when I also dislike what they dislike!).

You’ve all read enough complaints about the Internet. This isn’t that column, I promise. Let’s try a different tack: I’ve discovered that humans are fallible, apparently. And I’ve complained about it. So what’s next? What’s the opportunity in the problem?

Yes, these people online are saying stupid stuff. But also, look at the amazing things they’re putting out into the world despite these shortcomings! Look at how they’re struggling to let out their better angels — and succeeding! Look at what they can do when they put their mind to it instead of tossing off tweets. 

These people are able to buckle down and give the world valuable truth — if not the truth, then important truths worth being informed about. And, frankly, all of us are like this, at least some of the time.

Now, you might think I’m being harsh here in condemning online posts. And I don’t want to act like society is doomed. What I think is that social media is the symptom, the reveal of what has long been the human condition. In other words, most people are ill-informed about most things, yet simultaneously extremely confident about their beliefs and knowledge. 

The big difference in recent decades, and especially today, is that we have more avenues to broadcast those thoughts — those seemingly endless shallow, half-correct or ridiculous thoughts — at all hours and to more people.

Our flaws allow us to grow

So, we’ve learned this much: People are flawed, bad at estimating themselves and eager to share their opinions regardless of quality or and without waiting for an invitation. We can’t eliminate this problem, at least not in anything resembling a free society. So, again, what is the opportunity in this problem?

My first instinct is to lament humanity, but once I’ve gotten over my ego, I try to go back to the work we’re doing here at SmartBrief on Leadership: Get a little better, every day, as part of a lifelong journey. Help people do the same.

We’re locked into being flawed people, but our potential is not locked. And that potential is rarely unlocked by drastic, one-time events. More often, we tap into potential with slow, deliberate and often-painful change. The fallibility is a feature, not a bug, because it means we can always become better.

This process sounds easier than it is to execute. It’s doubly difficult for managers, who must be patient with themselves and with others. We must extend mercy, grace and trust — as Sue Bingham wrote on this site: “The bottom line: Management can’t operate from negative assumptions.”

No matter how optimistic we are, however, there will be mistakes made and recalculations needed. As Bingham writes:

It’s impossible to assume a leader can push ideas outside the status quo without making a few mistakes. Because our team promotes high levels of involvement, trust, and open communication, there are inevitably times when we don’t practice what we preach.

Of course, not every action or statement is defensible, and some actions or statements (or the failure to speak up or act) can justifiably result in termination or exclusion. But the leader’s job is to work through everything else. 

I’m on record about leaders needing the bravery to move on from people, whether because of attitude or sustained poor performance or because the situation simply isn’t working. But that bravery is the end result of a hard-nosed introspection in which leaders and organizations look inward to own their contribution to these poor outcomes. Looking inward is not the default for many organizations or leaders. Like social media trash-talkers, we love to blame but somehow are never part of the problem.

As I wrote in 2018:

At the risk of oversimplifying, these problems have the same root cause: The organization is not taking responsibility for training people, placing them in a position to succeed and following up by holding everyone to account.

Find the opportunity in the problem. And look at your role in the problem and the way forward.

How can we grow?

So let’s look ahead. To pick just one challenge, we’re all grappling with how the world of work is changing even as we struggle to exit the pandemic. That transition is messy.

Lots of proclamations have been made that “The office is dead!” Others are scoffing at remote workers: “None of this ‘I’m in Colorado … and getting paid like I’m sitting in New York City.’ Sorry. That doesn’t work.” (Hint: I think the answer is “It depends.”)

Some companies are going all-remote and perhaps ignoring the challenges and downsides. Other executives are trying to find a balance in a tough labor market, while the uncharitable view of many managers is that they’re trying to regain “a means of control” they lost when millions of people went remote.

We’re all living in public now, and we’re all going to say and do a lot of things. Some of those will be gems! Many won’t. The question is whether we’ll grow with the circumstances — questioning the absolute necessity of offices that were closed for 18 months, or pausing to think about how we choose to speak to each other online.

And so to go back to these online personalities I follow, let’s look at the opportunity in the problem. 

I’m learning a lot more about them than I could have known even 25 years ago, much less 100 or 200 years ago. And while we’ll never know the full life of public figures, I’m getting a great lesson in what it means to be human: Good at a few things, struggling most of the time. 

And that’s OK. 

If there’s a lesson about “leadership” in this post, it’s that our journey is never done, and all the little things we do add up to the big things that matter.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact him at @James_daSilva or by email.

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