Great leadership comes from great self-leadership, which starts with our mindset. While it is a relatively widespread belief that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, science tells a different story. We as human beings have a tremendous capacity to learn; it’s an ability we possess throughout our lifetime. One of the fundamentals of learning is both appreciating and understanding the power of mindset.
Given this, it is not surprising that the provocative and ground-breaking work of Stanford professor Carol Dweck, one of the most highly respected psychologists in the world, captured the attention and imagination of corporate audiences and business leaders. Although her original research focused on children, it’s become an integral part of leadership development because of its relevance and seamless application.
The primary thesis of her research is that human beings occupy one of two mindsets at any given moment: fixed or growth. The fundamental difference between these mindsets is their prevailing belief about the possibility of change. Those with a fixed mindset believe our potential and ability to learn is stagnant. There is nowhere to go from here; if we can’t do something today, it means we will not be able to do it tomorrow.
A growth mindset, on the other hand, looks at our potential as much more dynamic. Given the right degree of focus and practice, we can significantly move the needle in any area we choose. If I struggle with something today, I can take proactive and powerful steps to change things tomorrow.
Simply put, with a fixed mindset, we can’t get off the ground. With a growth mindset, the sky is the limit.
You can see why Dweck’s work has tremendous application to our current environment. Let’s take a deeper dive into a common example.
Life, personally and professionally, inevitably comes with setbacks. They are unavoidable. Undoubtedly, we are living through a very challenging period in our history. What was unimaginable just a few years ago is our reality today. We will encounter many setbacks as we navigate this new and ever-changing terrain. Our mindset has a direct effect on how we deal with these challenges.
According to Dweck, when we are in a fixed mindset, our primary objective is to look smart. Her research showed that participants with a fixed mindset “prefer tasks they can already do well and avoid ones on which they may make mistakes.” If this is our default reaction, it is little wonder that the presence of a challenge tends to prompt an avoidance strategy. Why would we take on a challenge when it could reveal our incompetence? If we fail, it will definitively show that we are over our heads.
Another common reaction with a fixed mindset is to resist the need for change, even when the environment is telling them otherwise. They would double down on what worked in the past. In today’s world, this is a recipe for disaster.
When we have a growth mindset, on the other hand, we are much more expansive in our thinking. For example, when a leader with a growth mindset faces a setback, it is a puzzle to figure out rather than an insurmountable obstacle to overcome. They take the time to examine the situation from multiple angles and look for what they can learn from the experience.
Alan Mulally, the legendary former CEO of Ford Motor Company and Boeing Commercial Airplanes told me a growth mindset is at the heart of his widely heralded Working Together Management System, which he used to engineer remarkable turnarounds within both organizations.
Alan told me, “Many people get to a place where they are comfortable with where they are, and it’s not easy for them to change and grow. The Working Together Management System challenges you to focus on the things that help you further execute the plan and mitigate possible risks. In this context, a growth mindset is absolutely key, because you’re not only solving today’s problems, but you’re also creating and executing an even better plan to solve the problems of tomorrow.”
Embracing A Growth Mindset
A critical question remains. How can we adopt a growth mindset when faced with a challenge. Rather than get lost in destructive questions such as “Why I am so stupid?” or “Why is my team so incompetent?” the top executives I work with ask themselves the following questions:
- What can I learn from this setback that I can bring forward in the future?
- Who is someone I know who can help me in this situation/in the future?
- How can we share our learnings with others in the organization?
- What went well here? What could have been improved?
Being a leader has never been easy. Today, we are facing incredible challenges, which also provide extraordinary opportunities. Focusing on developing our mindset and taking an empowered approach maximizes our chances for success.
Written by Craig Dowden. This article is an edited excerpt from the forthcoming book, A Time to Lead: Mastering Your Self… So You Can Master Your World, released on September 13, 2022.
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