WHAT SEPARATES a poor or a good leader from a great leader? Let me make the argument that a primary distinguishing factor is in how leaders see, interpret, and think about the situations that they encounter.
To do so, consider four situations leaders can find themselves in:
- Challenge and failure
- Disagreement with a subordinate
- Having to make a decision that involves risk
- Having a subordinate that is underperforming
Here is a table that shows two different leaders and how they each see and interpret these situations differently.
Who would you rather follow, Leader A or Leader B?
Every group I speak to always says “Leader B.”
But here is what is interesting, through a personal assessment I have done with over two thousand leaders and individuals, only 5% consistently operate like Leader B.
What this hopefully demonstrates is that effective leadership is born not out of what leaders do or what behaviors they engage in, but first and foundationally in how they see and interpret the situations they find themselves in.
So, what causes leaders to encounter the same situations, but interpret them so differently?
The answer to this question is the foundation of effective leadership: leaders’ mindsets. Mindsets are the mental lenses that leaders wear that shape how they see and interpret their worlds. Stated differently, mindsets are leaders’ mental fuel filters. Every day leaders are bombarded by thousands if not millions of stimuli, and it is their mindsets that filters select stimuli or information into their brain, and what gets filter through is what ends up guiding their thinking, learning, and behavior.
For example, consider a leader that has a subordinate that suggests that the leader could improve in some way. Depending upon the leader’s mindset, the leader could see that feedback as an indicator that the employee: (1) is questioning his/her leadership abilities and get defensive, or (2) cares about him/her and wants him/her to be as effective as possible. Thus, in this instance, the leader’s mindset drives how the leader thinks about the feedback, how likely the leader is going to learn from the feedback, and the manner in which the leader will behave in response to the feedback.
Four Mindsets Necessary for Leadership Effectiveness
If leaders’ mindsets are what drives their effectiveness, do you know what mindsets you need to develop to think, learn, and behave in the most effective way as a leader?
Although mindsets are foundational to leaders’ effectiveness, most groups I speak to are unable to identify a specific mindset that is essential for leadership effectiveness.
After learning about the power of mindsets and the foundational role they play in leadership effectiveness, I sought to identify the mindsets that drive effective leadership. As a leadership researcher, I scoured the academic literature, and I identified four sets of mindsets in largely four different areas of study (e.g., psychology, management, education, marketing) that have been studied for decades. While research associated with each set has repeatedly demonstrated that the mindsets influence individuals’ thinking, learning, and behavior, they have all be isolated from each other. Until now.
I have pulled these different mindsets together into one framework to help leaders clearly identify the mindsets they need to develop to operate more effectively. Each set of mindsets represents a continuum from negative to positive as follows:
Every leader possesses a mindset that lies somewhere along each continuum, and the basic idea is that the more positive one’s mindset, the more effectively they are to think, learn, and behave in the situations that they encounter on a daily basis.
Let me describe each set.
- Fixed: We do not believe that we or others can change or develop our/their abilities, talents, and intelligence.
- Growth: We do believe that we and others can change or develop our abilities, talents, and intelligence.
When leaders possess a fixed mindset, they seek to avoid failure, because, to them, failure means that they are a failure. Thus, those with a fixed mindset are primarily focused on looking good, and if something does not come easily or naturally to them, they have a tendency to give up.
Leaders with a growth mindset, on the other hand, are primarily focused on learning and growing. They embrace challenges, see failure as an opportunity to learn and grow, and believe that success only comes through pushing through obstacles and difficulties.
- Closed: We are closed to the ideas and suggestions of others
- Open: We are open to the ideas and suggestions of others and willing to take those ideas seriously
Here is a great quote from Farnam Street: “Before you smugly slap an open-minded sticker on your forehead, consider this: closed-minded people would never consider that they could actually be closed-minded. In fact, their perceived open-mindedness is what’s so dangerous.”
When leaders possess a closed mindset, they are primarily concerned about being seen as being right. As such, they seek to have their ideas supported, inclined to provide answers (as opposed to asking questions), avoid feedback and new perspectives, and see disagreement as a threat. All because they believe that what they know is best.
When leaders possess an open mindset, they are primarily concerned about finding truth and thinking optimally. In order to do this, they ask questions, seek to understand, seek feedback and new perspectives, and see disagreement as an opportunity to learn. All because they believe that their perspective is limited and they can be wrong.
- Prevention: Being focused on not losing
- Promotion Being focused on winning and gains
Leaders with a prevention mindset are like a ship captain whose primary objective is to not sink. When this is the leaders’ objective, s/he focuses on ensuring no problems occur, limiting risk, and not “rocking the boat” (i.e., maintaining the status quo).
Leaders with a promotion mindset are like a ship captain whose primary objective is to get to a specific destination. As such, the leader anticipates problems, sees risk as being necessary to reach destination, and is willing to adjust operations to reach destination.
The difference between these two leaders is that those with a prevention mindset get blown about by the winds and the currents of the sea and end up in a destination not of their choosing, while those with a promotion mindset are willing to brave the winds and the currents of the sea to end up in a destination of their proactive design.
- Inward: Seeing others as objects
- Outward: seeing others as people and valuing them as such
When leaders have an inward mindset, they see themselves as being more important than others and are limited in their sensitivity to the feelings and emotions of those that they lead. And, when something goes wrong, they place the blame on others.
When leaders have an outward mindset, they see others as being as important, if not more important, than themselves. And, when something goes wrong, they ask themselves: “Who am I being that their light is not shining.”
Becoming a More Effective Leader
Who would you rather follow, a leader whose mindsets are:
- Fixed, closed, prevention, and inward, or
- Growth, open, promotion, and outward?
The effect of such leaders are just like they sound. Leaders with negative mindsets are constricting. Leaders with positive mindsets are expanding.
What mindsets do you possess? Correspondingly, what type of leader are you because of your mindsets?
Again, from my personal mindset assessment, I have found that only 5% of people consistently possess all four positive mindsets.
If you are interested in learning how positive your mindsets are relative to thousands of others, I invite you to take my free personal mindset assessment. It will provide you with a personalized and comprehensive report to help you better understand each mindset set, what your mindsets are, and direction on how to improve your mindsets.
In all: The key to being an effective leader is your mindsets.