The Missing Link in Leadership

Excerpt from “Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When It Matters” by Dr. Mary Lippitt.

People continue to ask: How can we develop effective leaders? Certainly, we have done a good job in developing their internal mastery through work on style, characteristics, and competency. However, we have overlooked developing their external mastery, their ability to understand and leverage rapidly changing realities. My book, “Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When It Matters,” offers a new framework for helping leaders deliver results.

Incessant change shifts a leader’s role from being expected to have all the answers to being able to ask the right questions about current internal and external realities. Change initiatives often fail due to a narrow perspective that produce distorted thinking.

We must teach leaders to address six key components, or mindsets, for organizational success. Asking questions from these viewpoints uncovers what has happened, what is happening, and what is likely to happen, arming leaders with a comprehensive assessment.

  • The Inventing Mindset asks: What new products or services can we develop? What better methods or approaches can we find?
  • The Catalyzing Mindset asks: What will grow and retain our customer base? How can we beat the competition and seize opportunities to grow rapidly?
  • The Developing Mindset asks: What will deliver seamless infrastructure and operations? How will we manage risks? What systems would be effective in producing consistent high-performance levels?
  • The Performing Mindset asks: What can we do to improve quality, productivity, and ROI? How can we increase results and improve our processes and procedures and fine-tune resource allocations?
  • The Protecting Mindset asks: What will develop and retain our talent and support our culture, engagement, and collaboration? How will we improve competency? What is our succession plan?
  • The Challenging Mindset questions assumptions by using a strategic perspective: What needs and opportunities are emerging? Can we discover new niches to ensure our future success?

The need for a diverse, comprehensive understanding of current conditions was a hallmark of President Abraham Lincoln. He recruited three former political opponents for his cabinet. According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” published in 2006, Lincoln was not searching for unbridled agreement. He would need to know what each of these accomplished men thought about critical issues during the impending Civil War. His access to their thoughts contributed greatly to making Lincoln an effective president.

More recently, a corporate leader held a final staff meeting before making the final decision about purchasing another firm. He asked his staff what problems they foresaw. To his surprise, everyone could see only opportunity and clear sailing. Wisely, the leader tabled the discussion with a statement that “if we do not see any problems, we do not fully understand the situation.” And he was right. They eventually identified and evaluated potential glitches.

The lure of opportunity frequently blinds us to drawbacks, barriers, and unwelcomed consequences. Additionally, a lack of information sharing leads to resistance, fear, and confusion. While some leaders believe questions reveal a lack of knowledge, smart leaders know that asking questions conveys interest, respect, and understanding. At staff meetings, leaders can consider using one of the following:

  • Ask, “What have you learned since our last meeting?” at the start.
  • Request that attendees apply five minutes of brainstorming to a challenging issue.
  • Ask, “What should we start doing, stop doing, do less often, and do more often?”
  • Ask, “What persistent issue should we analyze to move the ball forward?”

The term, understanding, is critical here. When we take the word apart, we see it is asking us to look under our current standing on an issue. Digging deeper does not require the effort of an Einstein, but that of a leader dedicated to asking questions and digging beneath superficialities.

Historically, leadership development has focused on who and how. We must add what to the equation. And what does not require in-depth study or practice. Nor does it require a graduate degree or high IQ. Learning to ask relevant questions about current conditions can be accomplished with a checklist.

Surgeons, pilots, and lawyers all use checklists. They have to. The number of facets involved far exceeds anyone’s ability to keep them all in mind. We can only weigh three or four things in our minds at a time. The results with checklists are impressive. In surgical use, errors were reduced by 36 percent and deaths by 47 percent.

Considering the above example, imagine what checklists can do in business to avoid blunders and pitfalls. In addition to avoiding errors, checklists help identify which goal to pursue. While we would like to accomplish multiple goals, we cannot juggle everything at once.

Mindsets also enable us to understand what drives another person. Using Mindset questions, we can determine which Mindset priority currently drives another person. In essence, Mindsets let us put ourselves in another’s shoes. The same is true for our boss, our colleagues, our suppliers, our regulators, and anyone else in our orbit. To gain trust from people and influence their thinking, we must know their current Mindset priority. Now it is easier than ever to decipher what another thinks.

The Lincoln example in Goodwin’s book also demonstrates the value of tapping into diverse Mindsets. She states that when Lincoln appointed political opponents to be secretary of State, secretary of the Treasury, and attorney general, he was not recruiting them just to overcome their enmity. Lincoln sought to know what each of them thought about the crisis facing the nation. His ability to share and frame their thoughts formed the foundation of wise decisions—a crowning achievement for any leader.

Once we learn to identify what drives others, we expand our influence and uncover common ground. We can leverage the situation, build rapport, and produce better results. Understanding others’ priorities becomes a ticket to success.

Situational Mindsets equip leaders to align efforts, improve engagement, value diverse points of view, and increase results. In today’s world, leaders do not need to know all the answers—but they do need to ask the right questions to fully grasp their current realities.

Excerpt from “Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When It Matters” by Dr. Mary Lippitt.

Dr. Mary Lippitt is the author of “Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When It Matters.” She previously authored “Brilliant or Blunder: 6 Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity and Complexity,” accepted for use in MBA coursework. Dr. Lippitt is the founder and CEO of Enterprise Management Ltd since 1985, and is a professor at South Florida University. She has consulted for nonprofits, business, government agencies, and Fortune 500 companies throughout her 30-plus-year career, including organizations such as the IRS, Lockheed Martin, and Marriott. Her work has been published in the Huffington Post, The Journal of Business Strategy, and Industry Week.


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