The most powerful mindset for successful leadership

If you’re like most aspiring or senior leaders, you review your impact and progress at the end of each year, and plan your career aspirations and goals for the following year.

As you consider how to step up your leadership game, here’s a curious question for you:

To what extent do you believe that your intellect and aptitude are fixed, prior abilities versus traits that you have the power to develop and improve?

In other words, are you born with a level of ability that’s set in stone, or do you believe that you have the power to advance it through effort and experience?

This might seem like a strange question, but how you answer it can have a profound effect on how you approach your leadership goals, how easy or difficult it feels, and whether or not you ultimately achieve your ambitions.

Do you have a fixed or growth mindset?

According to world-renowned Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck, who’s spent decades researching achievement and success, those who believe their qualities are carved in stone have a fixed mindset, while those who consider their basic qualities are things they can cultivate through application have a growth mindset.

Now here’s why you should care which camp you’re in.

Dweck’s research attests that a fixed mindset compels a person to prove themselves over and over. The onus is on documenting intelligence or aptitude instead of developing it, based on the belief that talent alone creates success – without the need for effort.

This leads to the following behaviours, which can seriously hamper leadership intentions and impact: 

  • Fear of failure – nothing ventured, nothing lost; it’s important not to look or feel deficient
  • Disdain of effort – effort is for those who can’t make it on talent
  • Self-judgement – if at first you don’t succeed, it means you’re a failure, a loser, an idiot
  • Compare and despair – others’ success is your failure
  • Blame – if at first you don’t succeed, it’s someone or something else’s fault

Famous people like John McEnroe and Jeffrey Skilling, the CEO of Enron when it collapsed, demonstrated a fixed mindset.

By contrast, a person with the growth mindset trusts that success isn’t all about abilities and talent.

This puts a very different spin on an approach to personal development and goal setting, where learning, application and resilience are cultivated to support enhanced leadership ambitions:

  • It’s not failure, it’s feedback – learning from failures fuels growth
  • Anyone can improve – continuous effort and experience is the key
  • Self-respect – if things are harder than you thought, that’s okay, it just needs more work
  • Compare and compete – others’ success is a bar to meet and surpass
  • Bounce back-ability – if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again; challenge is exciting

Famous people who cultivated a growth mindset include Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Jackson Pollock, J K Rowling and Walt Disney.

Now, if your tendency is towards the fixed mindset, don’t worry. The good news is that it’s entirely possible to change your perspective. 

Here are three practical ways to cultivate a growth mindset:

1. Overcome fear of failure by deliberately aiming for it

This might sound ridiculous, but the psychology behind it is clever.

Try this out: Think about a roadblock that is preventing you from fully stepping into your leadership capability. For example, is your barrier about new skills, asking for help or support, or worrying about how others will judge your ideas?

Now write down ten small actions you could take to tackle that roadblock.

For instance, it might see you filling out course applications to up-skill in a particular area; asking someone you respect for their perspective or support; or testing out new ideas on senior colleagues or an industry guru to see what feedback you get – all with the expectation that you will be turned down, ignored or unsupported.

Then start taking those actions, all the while actively aiming for 100 knock-backs or failures.

The idea is that by aiming for and expecting rejections, rather than immediate success, any knock backs or outright failures will be less likely to cause you to give up.

And the reality is, in having lots of go’s at it, some things will inevitably work and ultimately up-level your results.

By deliberately trying to lose, you’ll turn fear of failure on its head and build all-important momentum toward the goal you really want to achieve.

2. Ask yourself one question

Senior leadership aspirations are often hampered by our own unhelpful thought patterns about what we’re capable of or what’s possible.

“I’ll never make a good leader”; “I need to be an awesome networker and I’m not”; “Introverts never succeed”; “My age is against me”; and many other thoughts besides can cause doubt and procrastination, and compel us to give up before we’ve made any real strides towards our desired end goal.

Luckily, these thoughts are typically limiting beliefs, and on closer examination often show themselves for what they are – imagined rather than real fears conjured up by our mind in a well-meaning but misled bid to protect us from failure. 

If you find yourself putting up mental barriers to your leadership aspirations, ask yourself one question:

Can I absolutely, 100% know that it’s true?

If deep down the answer is no, your mind is likely entertaining a limiting belief.

One way to prevent it from causing inaction is to challenge yourself to find proof points for the exact opposite thought.

For example, “Introverts never succeed” becomes “Introverts do succeed”, and you find proof points where that new thought could be as true or truer than the original.

The more you challenge your own mind’s thinking on beliefs that hold you back, the more likely you’ll be to take action, banish negative self-judgement and make advances towards your leadership goals.

3. Play primarily to your strengths

This might seem obvious, but strengths aren’t usually front of mind when it comes to stretching ourselves to meet new goals.

Instead, we tend to spend our time focusing on our weaknesses and trying to plug the gap, rather than celebrating and deliberately using the strengths we possess in pursuit of our goals.

Consider this: If you are a natural networker, but not so hot at creative ideas, which of the two are you likely to get a result from?

Identifying and intentionally using your strengths will up your success stakes considerably, and help you shape your leadership style to maximise your natural talents.

If you aren’t sure what your top strengths really are, check out Gallup’s CliftonStrengths assessment, which will give you clarity and ideas on how to utilise your talents to best effect.

So, given you get to choose for yourself, which mindset will it be?

Your answer is likely to steer your career course and leadership abilities for better or worse, as well as influence your long-term success as an impactful leader, so it’s worth choosing with care.