Staffing Management

Mary Lippitt Interview: Leading Leadership to Better Results

By Rick Bell

Mar. 20, 2015

Leadership is often in the eye of the beholder — or the employee — but it also can be summarized in a single word: results. Mary Lippitt, a faculty member at the University of South Florida, claims that results get derailed when leaders narrow their focus or personalized situations.

Her new book, “Brilliant or Blunder: 6 Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity and Complexity” helps sort out what’s important to drive results. Workforce Managing Editor Rick Bell caught up with Lippitt via email.

Workforce: Is it really that difficult to be a leader?Mary Lippitt March 2015

Mary Lippitt: The challenges that leaders face today are growing exponentially due to lean staffing, systemwide problems, growing competition, organizational silos and keeping people informed. Due to such complex integrated opportunities and risks, leaders must also learn to ask questions and not just provide answers.

WF: It seems the lifespan of a CEO grows shorter every year. Why is that?

Lippitt: Indeed, CEO turnover does remain high. One significant issue is that CEOs operate under the assumption that they have a mandate, and they stick with that mandate despite changing realities. And it is a detriment to become wedded to one vision, despite evidence that modifications, or major readjustments are needed.

WF: How can good corporate leaders avoid being thwarted in their vision by ruthless boards and greedy shareholders?

Lippitt: Stakeholders still believe in the silver bullet or simple answer. To counter this misperception, leaders must offer a realistic assessment of the risks and complexities involved. They must be able to show how investing in preparation and planning pays dividends. Going too fast, following a total emersion plan or ‘betting the farm’ entails an unacceptable level of risk and derails opportunities. Leaders need to recommend what every financial adviser preaches: Diversify for goal achievement and invest wisely, not rashly.

WF: Does gender play a role in leadership, particularly in business?

Lippitt: In a word … yes. Our research shows that female leaders consider more options than males, and therefore successfully navigate change while avoiding pitfalls. Since males operate with few mindsets, they filter information, increasing the likelihood of risk-laden blind spots. Women tend to remain unrepresented on boards of directors and executive teams. In addition, a pay disparity also remains.

WF: Is leadership a learned trait, or do people just have it?

Lippitt: When leadership is defined as making smart decisions that balance the short- and long-term goals, as well as gaining active support for change, leadership is learned. When leadership is defined as charisma, genetics become a factor. At that point, one is either commanding and energized, or lacking of those characteristics. (Please note that Jim Collins’ research showed that charisma does not translate into organizational success.)

WF: What’s your advice to those who are mentoring future leaders?

Lippitt: Mentors must focus on developing analytical and strategic thinking by offering a template for analysis. However, giving clues into the culture or traditions that help in the short run is comparable to giving a hungry person a fish to meet their immediate needs. Long-term advancement stems from knowing how to analyze current circumstances, and making smart choices that leverage opportunities while minimizing risk.

WF: Describe your ideal leader — and not necessarily of an organization or company.

Lippitt: The ideal leader is one who demonstrates wisdom by having a vision, setting a goal and engaging others to execute that goal. The ideal leader also shares information to align actions, collects information through probes, coaches others for future success, establishes monitoring systems to gauge goal progress and adjusts, as necessary, to ensure success.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. For comments or questions email

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