Why successful leadership depends on a growth mindset

Brilliant leaders don’t stand still. Being flexible and willing to grow psychologically and behaviorally is the key to succeeding in a disrupted and unpredictable world.

LEADERSHIP | 6 MINUTE READ

Successful entrepreneurs may look as though they’ve always been at the top of their game. It might appear as though everything they set up takes off, everything they invest in pays dividends, and everything they invent works first time.

But that ain’t necessarily so.

Milton Hershey founded no fewer than three confectionery companies before becoming the face of the leading US chocolate brand. Colonel Sanders was 56, with 1000 rejections of his chicken recipe behind him before he founded KFC. Steven Spielberg couldn’t get into university to study cinematic arts. James Dyson spent his life savings over 15 years and had over 5,100 prototypes behind him before he hit the big time.

These people certainly didn’t enjoy instant or guaranteed success. But if we assume they all had plenty of talent and positive attributes at the start, what made the difference between early failure and eventual success?

It’s a decent bet they all shared a growth mindset.

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Growth mindset vs. fixed mindset

Growth mindset vs. fixed mindset

People with a growth mindset believe that their talents and attributes are just the beginning. At every stage of their journey, they know they can develop and enhance these talents and continue adding even more leadership skills with each experience. They don’t worry about looking smart – instead, they direct their energies into being better.

By contrast, people with a fixed mindset tend to believe that the skills and talent they were born with are a done deal or those who think the key is to use a fixed set of tools and just keep on keeping on.

But no individual’s mindset is 100% growth or fixed. As Carol Dweck pointed out in the Harvard Business Review,1 people are a mix of fixed and growth mindsets, and this changes and evolves.

Do you have a growth mindset?

Do you have a growth mindset?

To see if you tend to think in a fixed or growth-focused way, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are your talents set in stone, or can they be developed and your skills strengthened?

  • When you approach a new task, do you feel pessimistic or confident there will be a positive outcome?

  • Do you need validation from others, or are you more interested in self-improvement?

  • Do your mistakes prove that you aren’t good at some things, or are they learning opportunities?

  • Do you prefer to avoid challenges, or are you excited by them?

  • Do you protect yourself from failure or use it to achieve higher levels of success?

  • Do you believe more significant effort goes unrewarded, or is it essential to succeed?

  • Do you find setbacks discouraging or motivating?

  • Do you give up easily or keep going when a task becomes difficult?

  • How do you feel about feedback? Do you react badly or respond constructively?

  • When others succeed, do you feel threatened or motivated?

What are the benefits of growth mindset leadership?

What are the benefits of growth mindset leadership?

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that people with a growth mindset feel more empowered and committed, and receive greater organizational support for collaboration and innovation, leading to enhanced success. With a growth mindset, you’ll be:

  • More likely to achieve your goals - The more you focus on the effort you need to put into something, the greater the chances of completing your tasks successfully.

  • More in control - A growth mindset means you will feel more confident and in control because you know you can develop and adapt to meet new challenges.

  • More resilient - If you believe you’ll succeed, you allow yourself to consider more creative ways to achieve that success. You’ll be less likely to give up and pursue goals until you reach them.

  • More flexible - Being confident of your ability to learn and adapt means you’ll be able to embrace and make the most of change and new opportunities.

  • Faster to learn - Not expecting to know everything and being open to learning will help you acquire skills and knowledge quickly – and enjoy doing it.

  • Less likely to give in to frustration - Being realistic about hurdles you’ll need to get over means you won’t give up.

What does this mean for growth leadership?

What does this mean for growth leadership?

When teams and companies embrace a growth mindset, they can multiply these advantages. According to a survey carried out by NeuroLeadership,2 the most common reason for leaders to adopt a growth mindset is digital transformation.

A growth mindset helps people stay agile, adapt to changing circumstances, and recognize that change is the new status quo. It’s the idea that leaders and teams might want to concentrate more time on “getting better” than “getting good” to achieve growth.

A growth mindset can also help you increase employee engagement. It allows employees to see their potential, focus on progress, and target areas for improvement.

Can I shift my mindset towards growth leadership?

Can I shift my mindset towards growth leadership?

Yes. A growth mindset can be cultivated and sustained through well-structured development, leading to better outcomes, personally and professionally.

If you feel you have a fixed mindset that’s holding you or your business back, there are several things you can do:

Look at performance management practices

Are they hindering growth? A growth mindset leader sees opportunities for their team, even during times of crisis. They don't blame wasted efforts (in fact, they don't look for blame anywhere). Instead, they make every effort to accelerate their team's growth to overcome any business challenge.

Focus

Be clear about what you want. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Choose and clarify specific areas of development and commit to achieving these. This might mean reprioritizing importance according to your own and your organization's needs.

Value effort

Research shows that praising students for their effort to improve and develop is more successful than praising them for their ability. 3 This can apply to people in your professional teams, too. Value the development and perspectives of others, as well as their talents.

Relate to others

Develop and nurture supportive relationships across the workplace for reflection and learning. Use these relationships as a sounding board and mentoring opportunities with peers or across teams. Communicate clearly to connect with colleagues and create a culture of openness.

Go outside your comfort zone

This is you’re most likely to grow. Resist preconceptions. Try new things and be open-minded.

Embrace new challenges

And don't be afraid to learn on the job. You don't always need experience or qualifications to make a start – it's often more effective and more interesting to learn as you go along.

Personalize your choices

Choose development areas that are important to you and your organization. Make them yours by developing a personalized leadership growth plan.

Use setbacks to grow

Allowing failure to be an option gives you and your team permission to take risks. In a volatile or shifting environment, what worked before may not serve you well in the future. Experimentation leads to innovation.

Give and seek feedback

Develop competencies through giving and receiving feedback. Acknowledge and accept the ever-changing business environment. And take time to reflect on your progress and keep a record of it. Reach out to others across your organization and ask for their formal and informal suggestions. Then respond to them positively and constructively.

Stretch

Put learning into practice through experiences of increasing difficulty and complexity, and push yourself to achieve more.

Develop proactive help-seeking behavior

Value the importance of 'soft' skills. Actively connect with other people, both inside and outside the workplace, and cultivate relationships and networking.

Learn from every experience

Your past, current, and future successes are all built upon each other. Keep in mind there's something to learn from every experience. No matter how unrelated something may seem to your current opportunity, you might find an important connection if you look hard enough or think laterally.

Never stop learning

It's always useful to develop an appetite for learning and developing. However, it's not just learning new skills. There's often a lot of un-learning that you'll need to undertake, too. Past practices might not be as effective now, or there might be more efficient ways of doing things. Be willing to un-learn past behaviors if they'll help you move forward.

Collaborate

Success is achieved faster by collaboration. It rarely happens in isolation. Think about diversity, too – if you surround yourself with people too similar to you, you'll lose valuable diversity of thought. Collaborate with a wide variety of people to make sure someone is always there to offer a different opinion or different perspective.

Motivate

Aspire to progress your career, the careers of your team, and those of the organization. Acknowledge and praise others.

Set goals and take risks

Don't be afraid to break with convention. Just because something has been done a certain way for some time doesn't mean you have to do it that way forever. New technology, innovations, and perspectives could allow you to streamline or automate processes. And new challenges are opportunities, not threats to traditional ways of working.

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1 "What Having a 'Growth Mindset' Actually Means", Harvard Business Review, 2016
2 "With growth mindset, disruption doesn’t have to mean destruction." NeuroLeadership, 2021
3 "Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance", National Library of Medicine, 1998
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