Don’t fight the problem, decide it.” – George C. Marshall

Every so often, you hear something so meaningful, so impactful, that the words stay with you long after the memory of the moment itself. You find yourself revisiting those words again and again over the years, considering their impact.

After a long day in our nation’s capital, a handful of us gathered with the commanding general for what we jokingly called “cheesy peanuts and beer” in the atrium of the Embassy Suites hotel in Crystal City. It was an opportunity to wind down at the end of the day, review the activities scheduled for the next day, and work through hot-button topics, interviews, and speech preparation for any public appearances. The normal grind for anyone serving on the personal staff of a senior leader. On a television near the bar, journalist and news anchor Wolf Blitzer was talking about the latest developments in Afghanistan.

The boss watched the news program for a few brief moments, then looked back at us. “You know, we’re really good at solving problems. What we’re not so good at is solving the right problem.”


Problem solving methodologies are relatively common. In the military, they range from the simplicity of the eight steps of troop leading procedures to the seven-step joint planning process. Outside the ranks of the uniformed services, there are models for solving everything from complex technical issues to ethical dilemmas. Some are as basic as four steps while others scale to 15 steps and more.

The challenge with most problem-solving models is that they are rooted in the assumption that the root problem has already been identified to some degree. The process moving forward is about marshaling resources, identifying actions, setting goals, and measuring progress. But if the basic assumption – that the central problem to solve is known – is wrong, the end result is a brilliant plan that solves the wrong problem.

So, how do you know that you’re solving the right problem and not the wrong one? That was the essence of what the general was trying to say that night. Watching events unfold in Afghanistan over the years, it was fairly clear that we didn’t understand the problem we were trying to solve if we even knew what that problem was in the first place. Though we didn’t know it at the time, we were just cresting the halfway point in that conflict, and things weren’t going to get any better, or any easier.

If only we’d known the right problem to solve.


Solving the right problem begins with sound leadership, but the heavy mental lifting typically occurs among the staff. Leaders who surround themselves with the wrong people – let’s just call them “yes” men – tend to find themselves mired in a vicious cycle of solving the wrong problem. Leaders who carefully select their staffs, choosing effectiveness over acquiescence, don’t usually suffer the same fate.

Retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Mike Dana, a career logistician and planner, recently captured a list of guiding principles for staff officers, a list that – not surprisingly – began with many of the same words that have haunted me all these years. It’s probably not a coincidence that his principles struck a chord.

1. Define the problem before you solve the problem.

Launching directly into problem solving is a natural habit for the highly competitive, Type A personalities that populate our leadership ranks. Break that habit. Be deliberate with your planning and take the time to properly frame the problem before solving it, something best done with a diverse team that provides a broader perspective on the problem.

2. How you see the problem can be the problem.

Personal bias, pre-conceived outcomes, and group think can easily plague the problem-solving process. This is why diversity of thought is so critical to an effective staff, as well as external assessments or “red teaming.” Challenging how you see the problem helps you to see it more clearly.

3. Don’t admire the problem, solve the problem.

On some staffs, an inordinate amount of energy is wasted on endlessly framing and reframing the problem, rather than actual problem solving. Time is a valuable resource that doesn’t regenerate. Instead of waiting for someone for a magical solution to appear, a synergistic staff leans into the process and shapes the solution.

4. Be a problem solver, not the problem.

Dana breaks down staffs into two kinds of officers: synthesizers and amplifiers. Synthesizers weave the threads of problem solving into a contextual “whole” and keep everyone focused on the end goal. Amplifiers detract from that end goal by misdirecting energy, wasting time and effort on actions that don’t contribute to solving the problem. Be a synthesizer.

5. When the boss asks a question, answer the question.

Staff officers exist to help leaders make decisions by providing relevant, timely, and actionable information. That means communicating the “so what” clearly, concisely, and correctly. In other words, be brief, be brilliant, be gone.

6. Shape the perception space before it is shaped for you.

Once you’ve identified the right problem to solve, your ability to actually solve that problem typically relies on your ability to coordinate effectively with others. That means conveying your solution in a compelling, convincing narrative. If you can’t articulate what you want to do and why, gaining the support of others will prove challenging.

7. Rolodex, Relationships, and Rehearsals (3Rs).

A staff officer’s worth is often measured in their ability to work well with others. Being “user friendly” is a good habit to have and helps to make others want to work with you. And when it comes to finally solving that problem, the proverbial rubber meets the road during rehearsals. Work out the bugs in your plan. Wargame it to death. Then solve that problem right the first time.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.