Leaders Can Use These Nine Skills to Become Better Problem-Solvers

Topic(s): leadership, performance, training
Publication: Leadership Quarterly, 2017
Article: Cognitive skills and leadership performance: The nine critical skills
Authors: M.D. Mumford, E.M. Todd, C. Higgs, T. McIntosh
Reviewed by: Sadie O’Neill

We often think of leaders as problem solvers, and this opens the possibility of leaders honing their problem-solving skills through training. But how can we train leaders to solve problems? Specifically, it is something called “case-based knowledge” that allows leaders to solve complex issues. Case-based knowledge refers to the context of the problem and any previous experience with similar issues, like a mental library of information tailored toward a specific problem.

But while case-based knowledge has the potential to improve performance in leadership roles, it is not necessarily enough by itself. Some leaders may get bogged down in the details of a decision or find it difficult to work on multiple cases at once because their case-based knowledge is stored in insufficient “mental models.” A mental model is a network of information that helps people mentally process and store information efficiently. Mental models directly impact a leader’s behavior and problem-solving ability.

In order to improve leader performance through training, the primary question is: what skills best help leaders use case-based knowledge and mental models to solve complex problems?  Researchers (Mumford, Todd, Higgs, & McIntosh, 2017) reviewed recent literature to identify nine skills critical to leadership performance:


  1. Gather information to define the problem.
  2. Think about the origin of the problem and possible solutions to the problem and how they are related.
  3. Consider any factors that may be constraining solutions.
  4. Plan the solution and consider ways to prevent harmful outcomes.
  5. Objectively forecast or predict what outcomes will occur after the plan is implemented.
  6. Use creativity to develop contingency plans.
  7. Evaluate ideas and appraise solutions. Which will be most effective?
  8. Use wisdom to appraise solutions using objective self-reflection, awareness, and sound judgment.
  9. Craft a vision and communicate, adjust, and articulate plans to followers.


When considering the leader as a problem solver, the above nine critical skills will help improve the use of case-based knowledge in mental models of leaders. This leads to more effective problem-solving. Each skill should be considered more or less important depending on the situation. For example, creativity may be important during unanticipated crises, but forecasting may be more critical for social problems with a myriad of possible outcomes. These cognitive skills are easily developed through training, such as strategy-based instructional interventions or self-reflection exercises. They may also be considered for use in assessing leadership potential. Overall, these skills allow leaders to more effectively navigate case-based knowledge in mental models, resulting in higher-quality solutions.


Mumford, M. D., Todd, E. M., Higgs, C., & McIntosh, T. (2017). Cognitive skills and leadership performance: The nine critical skills. The Leadership Quarterly, 28, 24-39.