Effective leadership starts with the right mindset

Today’s business leaders are faced with unprecedented challenges, complexity and uncertainty. This has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, a global “Black Swan” (unpredictable and hugely impactful on the economy) crisis that has shut down huge parts of the economy and placed unprecedented demands on our organizations and established way of life. Choosing how one responds to challenging and stressful situations like this are “moments of truth” and will determine leaders’ effectiveness and their impact on the performance of teams and the entire organization.

It is therefore hardly surprising that mindset has emerged as a core leadership and general topic in businesses today. Many businesses like Microsoft have embraced what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck refers to as the “growth mindset”. According to Dweck, people with fixed mindset don’t believe they can grow and learn throughout their lives. They assume talents are innate or ‘fixed. They therefore look for approval for qualities and know-how they already possess. Conversely, people with a growth mindset are curious, open-minded and seek ongoing learning, development and stretch.

Many other academics and practitioners have talked and written about the performance and life advantages of a positive mindset. In fact, positive thinking was popularized in the early 1950’s when author and minister, Dr Norman Vincent Peale, published the best-selling book, The Power of Positive Thinking. This has fuelled an enormous self-help industry characterized by dozens of techniques such as solutions-based problem-solving, mindfulness, meditation, positive self-talk and appreciative inquiry. While some of these techniques are backed by good science, many provide little more value than ‘snake oil’ solutions.

Mindset can be defined as our system of attitudes and beliefs that shape our thoughts and actions. It is the ‘lens’ through which leaders view and make sense of the world and events around them.

I have been fascinated by the emerging research underpinning this work for the last decade or so. In my recent book, Optimise Your Strengths, we point out the performance advantage of leaders and teams who adopt a “Path of Possibility” versus a “Path of Limitation” mindset. Leaders and teams choosing the positive path tend to focus on strengths, successes and possibilities, while leaders and teams choosing the limiting mindset focus on deficits, weaknesses and problems. Dozens of clients we worked with when I ran Strengthscope® found this distinction very powerful and it facilitated shifts in both mindsets and performance of individuals, teams and even whole organisations.

Building on this approach, I have developed a more complete and robust framework for assessing and developing a leader’s mindset. Rather than seeing mindset in a binary way, as simply positive versus negative or fixed versus growth, it considers 4 key pillars of a leader’s system of beliefs and attitudes that shape the way they interact with the organization and world around them. These 4 pillars are Purpose, Problem-solving, Relationships, and Learning. The extreme points of each of these 4 pillars is illustrated below, although most leaders will find themselves at different points on these 4 continuums rather than at the extremes.

Leaders’ mindsets aren’t fixed. Leaders can move from the positive to the negative end of the continuum depending on the leader’s personality, their maturity and how they choose to subjectively interpret events and challenges that arise. However, their mindset will impact the way they approach their role, including how effective they become at learning, problem-solving and decision-making. It will also determine their performance, confidence and wellbeing.

The key for leaders is to become more conscious of these different aspects of their mindset at any point in time and how this will impact themselves, their team and the organization. This will enable them to recalibrate and change course to ensure their mindset contributes to effective decisions, habits and outcomes, multiplying value for the team and organization rather than eroding it.

For example, at this enormously challenging time, leaders can choose to learn how to recover from the crisis and build greater resilience, agility and risk preparedness in their businesses. Alternatively, they can bury their head in the sand and blame the government, their bank or fate for all their problems. Those that choose a solutions-oriented, learning mindset are more likely to recover quicker from the crisis. As someone I admire greatly recently pointed out, when life throws you lemons you need to learn to make lemonade pretty darn quickly in order to survive.

Research on mindset is far from conclusive and even Professor Dweck’s popular “growth mindset” has attracted a lot of critique in recent academic research. However, in my own experience, mindset is hugely powerful for leaders in helping them build self-awareness and gain more perspective on how their assumptions and beliefs shape their decisions, actions and relationships. It is a concept that deserves to be incorporated into all leadership and coaching solutions and one that will doubtless attract further research and necessary scrutiny in the years ahead.

About the Author

James Brook
Founder and MD | Leadership Consultant & Psychologist

James has over 25 years’ experience working with leaders and organizations internationally to optimize their performance, talent and future success. He has worked with leaders from diverse sectors, countries and cultures to develop high-trust, positive leadership and thriving workplaces. Clients have included Commvault, Equinor, Facebook, Gilead Sciences, GSK, John Lewis, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Novo Nordisk, Oracle, Sainsbury’s, Swiss Re, Tesco, Yahoo! and WSP.

James has set-up and successfully grown several of his own businesses, including Strengthscope®, a global strengths assessment and consulting business. As Joint Founder and MD, he grew Strengthscope® into a market leader before selling his share of the business in 2018.

James is an accomplished author and speaker on leadership, coaching, innovative talent management, positive organizations and the future of work. His most recent book, Optimize Your Strengths, explores how leaders can create thriving workplaces by inspiring and supporting people to optimize their potential and teamwork to deliver exceptional results.

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