Recently, I encountered a scheduling problem. In coordinating several professional commitments, I got confused and inadvertently forgot what was perhaps my most important commitment: my promise to take my daughter to a concert for her birthday. 

When I realized my mistake, as far as I could see, I had only three options:

  1. Break my commitment to my daughter, even though we had bought the tickets six months earlier.
  2. Damage my professional credibility by breaking commitments I'd made to my associates.
  3. Scramble to get home in time by leaving work early and spending lots of money on transportation (a plan with no guarantee I'd even make it).

None of these options seemed very appealing.

I needed to switch my perspective

Serendipitously, in the weeks leading up to this day, I'd internalized two lessons from renowned thinkers that led me to a solution.

First, I heard Kaihan Krippendorff--a world-renowned strategist--give a presentation on the notion of there always being a "fourth option." At the same time, I had been reading Ryan Holiday's book, The Obstacle Is the Way, which preaches the power of stoicism--the ancient Greek philosophy of enduring pain or adversity with perseverance and resilience.

Holiday's book explains that stoics focus on the things they can control, let go of everything else, and turn every new obstacle into an opportunity. This mindset reminded me of how Marcus Aurelius put it nearly 2,000 years ago: "The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way."

At the same time, Krippendorff's wisdom helped me realize that outside-the-box thinking is by and large lacking in the typical corporate problem-solving process. Too often we fall back on the tried-and-true, asking ourselves and our teams to choose from a few common options.

Combining these perspectives, I was able to change my perspective on my commitment problem. By doing so, I was ultimately able to find a creative solution to my predicament: I elevated a member of my team to handle the professional obligation. This strategy provided a valuable professional opportunity for someone on my team--and our client was perfectly happy with the results.

Even better, I fulfilled all my commitments.

Here's what the experience taught me: Limiting your thinking is dangerous  

This is especially true for leaders. Leaders who present only fixed options to their teams when trying to solve a problem in effect limit what those teams are capable of accomplishing. They shut down new ideas and stifle creativity. It's really about attitude and perspective; if we think we don't have options, we don't.

This, of course, is the opposite of what leaders are supposed to do.

It is much more powerful--and a better reflection of true leadership--to instead ask: "How could we make this work?" You might even want to take the traditional options off the table to rouse new ideas and perspectives.

That sort of mindset encourages people to put on their problem-solving hats and think much more creatively.

Both individuals and teams rise or fall to meet expectations

Leaders who expect creativity and provide conditions that foster out-of-the-box thinking empower their employees to be more creative and stretch beyond their comfort zones. This kind of leadership is far more effective and valuable in the long term, because team members think for themselves. No one person has to do everything.

So, the next time you or your team faces a significant obstacle or challenge, don't waste valuable energy and time thinking about how you got there or dwelling on your misfortunes. Instead, accept the reality of where you are and ask yourself and those around you to consider: What can we do to address this problem with the resources at our disposal?

Then, push yourselves to identify that fourth option.

Ultimately, you'll be a better leader--and person--for it.