Most advice on becoming an effective leader is geared—maybe not surprisingly—toward the things we can change about ourselves. We focus our attention on asking ourselves, “Do I have the right values, the right traits, the right competencies, or even the right style to be a good leader?”
While those questions are important, we sometimes forget that the environment you create for your team makes just as much, if not more, of an impact. From asking questions to listening to their team members, an effective leader is attuned to their environment and fosters an atmosphere where their coworkers are safe to grow and learn.
These ideas were the inspiration for Dr. Mary Lippitt’s new book, Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When it Matters. The book focuses on how leaders can better read and respond to their surroundings, introducing a new, system-centered approach to becoming a better leader. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Lippitt for an exclusive interview, where she shared her experience with consulting and training and the Situational Mindsets that she has seen lead to effective and lasting change.
WHAT ARE SITUATIONAL MINDSETS?
While we can always work on growing and improving ourselves, certain aspects of our personalities can’t be trained out of us. “No matter what leadership program I attend, it will never change my personality. You can put me in counseling, but that would take a while,” Dr. Lippitt told me.
That’s where the six Situational Mindsets come in. Rather than an internal focus solely on your own personality style, Situational Mindsets are external practices that show positive results within days. They’re not just a way of quantitatively looking at organizational improvement; they are ways for leaders to engage with their team members and their environment. As Dr. Lippitt put it: “I’m trying to broaden the way we look at leadership in a dynamic world and how we contribute, rather than looking at it from a bureaucratic or functional approach.”
The Situational Mindsets help identify key organizational goals and how to move toward achieving them, based on what is currently happening in your organization. Dr. Lippitt used the pivot after COVID-19 as a recent example. “In January 2020, the major CEOs didn’t care about engagement or employee safety, planning for working from home, etc. All of that changed in March. They responded to the environment,” she said. “We need to be more effective in responding to our environment. Leadership historically has not done that.”
COMPARTMENTALIZATION (Think across the system, not just your own compartment)
According to Dr. Lippitt, leadership research has historically assumed that we operate within a stable environment. But that’s not the case anymore. We now live in an age of dynamic change. The terrain is constantly shifting underneath us, and our actions have longer-range impacts than we tend to realize.
“We’re used to doing things sequentially,” Dr. Lippitt explained. “I’ll do one thing, and then I’ll do something else. In reality, that puts things in little boxes, and it doesn’t introduce how that box impacts someone else, and how someone else could impact me.” When we package each department into neat boxes, compartmentalizing the different pieces of the process, we lose awareness of how our department’s decisions and choices might impact others down the line.
Instead, says Dr. Lippitt, we need to focus on thinking across all the compartments. “We have a lot of sub-optimization in this world, and what I would like to do is to move us from looking at our small unit, and look at a larger expanse. I think that will help the organization be successful, and that makes all of us feel successful.”
MEET KATE: THE LEADER YOU WANT TO BE
To cultivate a big-picture, system-wide mindset in her readers, Dr. Lippitt explores many of these ideas through a fictional protagonist named Kate. Kate is a VP of Sales at a faltering printing company, where she employs the Situational Mindsets to assess the firm’s internal and external realities. The Situational Mindsets help her foster system-wide collaboration and forward momentum for the company. Along the way, Kate experiences many familiar leadership scenarios.
Kate comes from Dr. Lippitt’s experience consulting with companies to identify areas for improvement. “I come in, and someone at a higher level says, ‘Mary, come up with some suggestions for improving the organization.’ All I have to do is talk to the people on the front line, get a lot of good ideas, and present them to management. They could have done the same thing—but they don’t.”
That’s where Kate is different.
Kate approaches leadership with an awareness of her environment, valuing the input of those around and under her. Her approach is often to ask questions of others, and then listen. She navigates the tough terrain of acknowledging and honoring her boss’s desires while simultaneously keeping in mind her team’s perspectives and advocating for her own ideas. Dr. Lippitt described Kate as someone who follows her heart and has confidence in herself, but also recognizes the need to take some calculated risks. “Kate is someone who recognizes that she has to show her approach, her trustworthiness, and her personal goal to work for common success early. There are two approaches a new leader takes to a job: I’m going to come in, and I’m going to wow them with my brilliance. Or: I’ll sit back, and I’m going to help you analyze the situation and find out how to make you successful so we both can be successful. Kate has decided to do that. She’s a risk-taker in her career, which is something we need to encourage.”
DON’T PUNISH MISTAKES; LEARN FROM THEM
One practical challenge Kate faces is the uncomfortable handling of mistakes with her team. Mistakes are an inevitable part of any process, but according to Dr. Lippitt, what defines our leadership style is our response to them. “If I make a mistake, how, as a salesperson, do you want me to handle it? Will you tell me what I did wrong, or ask me, ‘Mary, in hindsight, what would you do differently?’” While setting clear parameters early is important, those expectations need to be realistic—and we can’t expect team members to respond exactly as we would. “If you make me become just like you, then I won’t be authentic, and I won’t come across to a prospect as an authentic person. It’s got to be a give and take, and part of that is establishing very early what the parameters are,” said Dr. Lippitt.
Kate handled situations with her team members by taking a “we” approach, rather than an “I” approach. She avoided asserting her own seniority with clients and embarrassing her team members by undermining their authority. Instead, she went along with her team members, choosing to reflect with them afterward. This type of approach, says Dr. Lippitt, goes a long way towards helping others learn. When you have the chance to evaluate the experience for yourself and reflect on it, rather than just being told that you did something wrong, the experience becomes much more impactful. “I am much more likely to accept information that I deduced, rather than from what you told me. It’s about establishing expectations and letting the person do their after-action reflection. After-action exercises should never be, ‘You did something wrong,’ but ‘What could we do better?’”
HOPE IS NOT A BUSINESS STRATEGY
Most of us are likely familiar with the generic picture of a successful leader; after all, it’s the image we see in every book or seminar on leadership. We’re told that good leaders should have a can-do, upbeat, charismatic attitude, and should exhibit both conviction and persistence. Those traits are great, says Dr. Lippitt, but are far from the full picture. “It’s risk and opportunity, not opportunity alone,” she said. “Hope is not a business strategy.”
Hope and confidence are good things to have, but you also need to think critically about your company’s future. “I think some people think that the word ‘critical thinking’ means that I’m being negative,” said Dr. Lippitt. But that’s not the case. “In this instance, critical thinking is going to make sure that I’m successful because I’ve thought the thing through thoroughly. I’ve identified the opportunities, but I’ve also identified the risks, which means that I can plan to prevent them, or I can be prepared to address them—rather than pushing ahead and asking people to follow me blindly.”
Vision won’t always line up from person to person. Everyone has different ideas, and everyone believes they know what’s best. How do you balance between listening to everyone’s perspectives while still moving forward and making decisions? Prioritization.
“I adapt and will do what is necessary if it becomes a priority for me—if I think it’s important enough,” said Dr. Lippitt. “COVID is a marvelous example of how people are arguing with each other over what’s a priority.” Everyone has opinions on every different component of COVID-19 management, whether it’s developing a vaccine, testing, managing hotspots, protecting essential workers, hospital capacity, or any other issue related to the virus. It’s not that any of these approaches are bad ideas. “You can see how everybody could be talking at each other, rather than looking at all these things and saying, ‘What’s the most important to do right now?’ Yes, we can find ways to address the other issues—it’s not a question of someone being wrong. It’s a question of who is more on target given our current conditions.”
When you listen to everyone’s opinions before making a decision, it ultimately helps get them on board with the route you decide to take. “That kind of discussion services more information, but the real thing it does is create buy-in,” Dr. Lippitt explained. “It gets support for what I’m doing now, because I understand that it’s a priority now, but I also understand that you listened to me, and in the future, my need will become a priority. It’s a way of gaining support for change.”
Change is hard. It’s difficult to let go of the old ways of doing things and embrace new processes and routines. And the statistics reflect that. “The research says that successful change is between 11% and 30%,” said Dr. Lippitt. “That’s a really poor success ratio! And the reason is that most people won’t stick with change.”
Part of the reason for this is an overemphasis on vision and a lack of follow-through with execution. “There’s a saying I use a lot, that I first heard from a high school student: ‘vision without execution is hallucination.’ Many people are enthusiastic about trying a new vision, but they don’t get the support for execution or haven’t thought the thing through, so implementation never happens. And it’s the implementation that counts.”
Planning and attention to detail are essential for setting your company up for success. Where the expression “ready, aim, fire” is a familiar one to all of us, most companies start with “ready,” skip “aim,” and go straight to “fire.”
“The details count,” said Dr. Lippitt. She recounted a story about a product launch where the company had everything lined up and ready for release, but forgot to write the call center script. When potential customers called in to ask about the product, the people in the call center had only a hazy idea of how to explain it. This one small detail ended up sabotaging the entire launch. “If somebody is excited and calls in, but the person answering the phone can’t answer any questions, it’s not going to be a successful launch,” said Dr. Lippitt. “Asking questions like: ‘What do we need to do to make this successful? What resources do we need to have in place?’ and then, ‘Who do we need to get on board; who do we need to explain this to?’ Those are the questions that will turn an idea, vision, or initiative into something that will be successful.”
FINAL THOUGHTS (GO FORTH AND CREATE CHANGE)
Creating lasting change is no easy task.
However, as leaders, that’s often the exact thing we’re called upon to do.
That’s where Situational Mindsets cultivate awareness of your surroundings—and willingness to respond to them. “Listen. Evaluate. Read the terrain,” says Dr. Lippitt. “We cannot do everything that we would like to do, but we can target what is vital at this moment in time to secure our success.” When you’re attentive to your team’s needs and the dynamics at play in your environment, lasting change is within reach.
To learn about the specific six mindsets, check out Dr. Mary Lippitt’s book:
Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When it Matters, available on Amazon.