The Six Mindsets of Leadership

The Six Mindsets of Leadership

One of my favorite movie scenes occurs in The Paper Chase. Professor Kingsfield (played excellently by John Housman) is addressing his first-year students at Harvard Law School. He tells them:

“You came here with a mindful of mush, and if you survive you will leave here thinking like a lawyer.”

I would love to give a similar speech in my leadership classes:

“You came here with a mindful of mush, and if you survive, you will leave here thinking like a LEADER!”

I just don’t think I could pull it off with a straight face.

Despite my lack of acting ability, I do think there are certain elements that are necessary for the development of effective leaders. Here’s the big idea: Leading effectively in the context of an increasingly dynamic and diverse environment requires the development of six leadership mindsets:

1. The Reflective Mindset: Broadening Perspectives

This mindset requires leaders to gain an understanding of their personal leadership philosophy and style–how they present themselves to others, their strengths and weaknesses, and their current leadership skills. This is achieved through a thorough, reflective and often uncomfortable self examination.

A useful tool for developing the reflective mindset is the development of a Life-Map, which you can learn to create here.

2. The Analytic Mindset: Leading Organizations

Successful leadership of complex organizations requires the development of a “meso” approach that integrates the macro and micro elements of the organization. The analytic mindset is developed through the exposure to and application of the analytical tools used to manage specific organizations and through formal approaches that improve managerial effectiveness. The concepts of strategy, structure, culture, technology and human resources must be understood in a systematic way that allows leaders to view the process of leading as a melding of science, art and craft.

3. The Worldly Mindset: Navigating Complex Environments

Contemporary organizations operate in increasingly dynamic and complex global environments. In order to survive and thrive, every leader must wrestle with how to cope and adapt in their environmental context.

Here’s a fancy term to use when trying to impress your friends: requisite variety. The principle of requisite variety states that the organization’s response to the environment in which it operates must match the environment. So, if the environment is becoming increasingly complex and dynamic, so must the organization. The big idea is matching the structure of the organization with the characteristics of the environment.

When the operating environment is simple and stable, the organization can afford to be more mechanistic, using policies and procedures to deal with the normal operation of the organization. But, when environmental complexity increases, the organization must be much more organic. In this environment, rules and regulations will not be sufficient to meet the demands placed on the organization. These environments require empowered employees who use their own judgment to respond to customer demands and solve problems.

This in turn requires leaders to develop the adaptive capacity of their teams and trust those teams to act in the best interest of the organization and its stakeholders. Does the structure of your organization match the environment that it operates in? Are you practicing requisite variety?

4. The Collaborative Mindset: Appreciating Work Relationships

Leadership is intentional influence that takes place in the context of a relationship.

Because relationships are the primary context for the leadership process, leaders must develop the interpersonal dimension of organizations.

Those who rise to leadership positions without cultivating the skills of relationship-building, negotiating, stakeholder coordination, and knowledge management are setting themselves up for derailment.

Effective leaders understand the importance of developing emotional intelligence. Emotionally intelligent leaders are aware of their emotions and use their emotions in a constructive way. Leaders with a high level of emotional intelligence are also aware of the emotions of others. They display empathy as they help others manage their own emotions. Leaders who lack the skills associated with emotional intelligence lose their influence and may actually derail their careers.

5. The Moral Mindset: Leading Ethically

Those who lead always have people who are dependent upon them. The greater the dependency, the more power a leader has. So, a central question for those who lead is:

How will you handle the dependency of your followers?

Leaders must develop an acute sensitivity to the moral responsibilities inherent in their role.

Recently I had a conversation with a high-potential leader. We were discussing the power inherent in the leadership role. He told me “It scares me to death that I might be in a role where people will do what I ask simply because of my role.”

I responded by saying: “Stay scared.”

As long as leaders are sensitive to the power inherent in their position and realize their own potential to abuse that power, they will be on the right path. It’s when we lose that perspective that we start down the road of unethical leadership. So, stay scared.

In order to develop this awareness, leaders must learn to:

  • Reflect on the moral perils of power and leadership
  • Analyze the moral obligations of leadership in different contexts
  • Shape the moral environment of their organization

6. The Catalytic Mindset: Achieving Change

Leaders are change agents who must facilitate the adaptive work of their organization. Successful leadership of change initiatives requires the development of a comprehensive integrative framework that identifies the nature of the challenge facing the organization and develops a vision of a preferred future that can then be translated into strategic change objectives and the operational tactics necessary to implement meaningful change.

Cultivating these mindsets is a necessary process for your effectiveness and on-going development as a leader. I have found it helpful to invite others to assist you in this process. Developing and leaning into a personal board of directors who can observe you and provide feedback is an important step in this direction. As leaders, we need people in our lives who care enough about us to give us constructive and corrective feedback, address our blindspots, and challenge us when they are concerned about the trajectory of our actions.


J. Lee Whittington is a Professor of Management in the Satish & Yasmin Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. He focuses his teaching, research, and consulting in the areas of Leadership, Organizational Behavior and Spiritual Leadership.

His research has been published in The Leadership Quarterly, Journal of Management, Academy of Management Review, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Journal of Managerial Issues, Journal of Business Research, Journal of Business Strategy, and the Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management.

His book, Biblical Perspectives on Leadership and Organizations was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in August 2015. He is also a co-author with Tim Galpin and Greg Bell of the book, Leading the Sustainable Organization. His newest book, Enhancing Employee Engagement: An Evidence-Based Approach was co-authored with DBA students Simone Meskelis and Enoch Asare, Gupta professor Sri Beldona.

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