The Root vs. The Fruit: The Secret to Great Leadership

I realized the other day that three year olds might have found the secret to problem solving as a leader. Think back to when you were three years old, whenever your parent asked you to do something, or if you were in an inquisitive mood, what would you say incessantly? “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” (copy this line 100 times, and you have just simulated having a toddler. You’re welcome.) 

While the barrage of questions might seem like adults are living with mini neurotics, what usually ends up happening? After the series of “Why’s”, you find yourself getting to the root of whatever topic you were talking about. This leads to a super meta answer to the tune of, “That’s just the way life is sometimes” or a definitive, factual answer.

Good leaders are exceptional at this exercise. They are able to see past all of the minutiae, and identify what the problem is, and what the solution needs to be. While these leaders may seem like they’re geniuses, I want to present to you the foundation for good leadership (any business school readers should find this familiar):

This is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow believed that a human’s basic needs could be summed up in these 5 categories. A great leader understands these needs when they’re trying to get to the root of a problem and find a solution, whether it be with people, or a whole business.


Imagine this scenario – Esteban is telling you, his manager, that his work is piling up and he can’t finish it all. What do you do? The quick answer would be to take a few things off his plate. But, when you do that, you’re just fixing the “fruit” of the problem, symptoms of a deeper underlying problem.

If you’re a good manager, you’ll have the emotional intelligence to see what Esteban is really worried about, the “root” of the problem if you will:

  • Maybe he doesn’t want his lack of completion to cause him to lose his job and livelihood (Physiological Need)
  • Maybe all of his work is causing him to miss time with his family (Love and Belonging)
  • Maybe Esteban wants a promotion and wants to focus on the things that will help him realize his professional goals (Self-Actualization)

Whatever it is, a great leader will know Esteban well enough to be able to diagnose the best way to not only help Esteban, but continue motivating him to get better and better.


Knowing the difference between the “root” and the “fruit” of an issue is what separates a great product or company from a subpar one. We’ve all heard of those “iffy” startups that could only do one thing (an app that tells you how many pancakes you’ve eaten in a lifetime). What makes them different from your Uber’s, HP’s, and Macy’s?

Most businesses (who don’t last long, I might add) are only trying to solve an initial problem that they see (a “fruit” problem). Conversely, the founders and leadership teams at established companies are trying to solve root problems for people. For example:

  • Uber – Solves your various transportation needs and gets you from point A to point B safely and more efficiently (Physiological and Safety Needs)
  • HP – Put the “personal” in personal computing to help people do more with their lives by making them more efficient (Self-Actualization)
  • Macy’s – Satisfies the fashion and home decor needs/desires of each member of a family, from the youngest to the oldest (Self-Esteem)

Of course, there is no formula to how to properly find the root of a problem. People do different things. Some talk problems through until they find the root. Others do outside research. Whatever works for you, don’t just settle on the initial answer to a problem. If you keep digging and asking yourself “Why?” you might like what you discover…

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