A leader’s mindset might be one of the greatest predictors of success and also one of the most elusive elements to pin down. Leadership happens in the nuanced shifts that occur first in the leader’s mind. But how is something that happens in a leader’s head measured? Is there a way to identify the skills that indicate a leader has adopted the mindset required to be successful?
If we can bring a different attitude to our role as a leader, if we can shift our mindset, we can impact our behaviors. And our behaviors, in turn, can alter our attitude long-term. But if actions speak louder than words, how do we isolate the actions the best leaders take when they are embodying a particular mindset? As a follow-up to research conducted by GP Strategies in 2018, additional analysis was conducted and presented in the report, “From Mindset to Skillset: The Thoughts and Actions of Successful Leaders.” Following are some takeaways from that research and analysis.
The Big Four
Thoughts influence actions, actions drive results, and those results come full circle to impact our beliefs. Because of this relationship, it makes sense to focus on shifting our thoughts as well as enhancing our skills or actions. But which mindsets should we focus on, and what are the actions that will drive the results we want?
While there has been much warranted support for a focus on a growth mindset, a singular mindset doesn’t encompass the complexity of what leaders need to be successful. A growth mindset, we believe, is one of the big four, and perhaps the biggest but not the only attitude we want our leaders to bring to their role. Based on our research and our work with individuals across the globe, we have coalesced around four mindsets — growth, inclusive, agile and enterprise — as particularly critical to a leader’s success.
- Growth mindset — skills and behaviors can be cultivated with effort; even setbacks are opportunities to learn and grow.
- Inclusive mindset — differences in how others think and behave are advantages to be leveraged.
- Agile mindset — success in a changing world requires flexibility, adaptation and resilience.
- Enterprise mindset — success is maximized when the needs of the larger organization are prioritized.
Our research revealed that these represent a comprehensive set of mindsets that leaders need to be successful. In fact, 90 percent of respondents to our research agreed that these are the mindsets a leader needs.
We also learned what the best leaders do to demonstrate each mindset, the challenges they face in doing so and how they know when they are successful.
Paving a Way for Innovation
Across all four mindsets, some common themes emerge. When these mindsets are present and leaders exhibit the behaviors associated with them, those leaders and their people push the boundaries of what is possible, seek diverse opinions and approaches, and feel empowered to make decisions for the greater good. These conditions establish a workplace where the organization encourages risk-taking, empowers their team and increases resiliency.
Perhaps most important, what we heard consistently in leaders’ responses is that when they are successful at encouraging these ways of thinking, they create an environment where innovation can happen. At the same time, common challenges emerged as well.
Unpacking Each Mindset
A mental shift needs to happen for behavior change to stick or be successful. Leaders can achieve this by increasing their personal awareness of their current mindset and then trying new perspectives. By repeating small shifts in mindset, leaders lay the groundwork for more breakthrough changes to occur.
At the same time, demonstrating the actions associated with a new mindset reinforces that new thinking. The ultimate evidence that a mindset shift has occurred is reflected in the actions associated with that new perspective — individuals behave differently when a new mindset has truly taken hold.
But what are the actions the best leaders demonstrate when they have a growth, inclusive, agile or enterprise mindset? Here’s what our research told us about the actions that the best leaders take to demonstrate these mindsets and some of the challenges they need to overcome to get there.
A Growth Mindset
A substantial number of respondents to our study — 45 percent — said that providing appropriate coaching to ensure their team members succeed is what the best leaders do to demonstrate a growth mindset.
A leader who coaches instills confidence in their employees. They provide space for their employees to choose their own path to success and provide support along the way. A coaching mindset and a growth mindset are aligned because at the core of both is the belief that individuals are resourceful, and it’s the coach’s job to help unleash potential, not tell the employee in a prescriptive way what they should do.
But the path to a growth mindset has obstacles that leaders must overcome. Respondents told us what they consider most challenging in embodying a mindset of growth: time and production pressures, a culture that punishes failure and self-limiting beliefs. Leaders indicated they would like to take advantage of coachable learning opportunities, but they can’t find the time when faced with the day-to-day pressures of delivering results. It’s hard not to wonder whether it is a true lack of time or perhaps a lack of confidence around coaching that causes leaders to shy away from this critical skill. Perhaps of bigger concern is the organizational hypocrisy identified: Our respondents highlighted that organizations advocate for a learning culture but then only reward accomplishments and punish failures.
Nevertheless, the payoff is there when a growth mindset takes hold. Leaders see it in the willingness of their people to proactively take on new challenges and increase the risks they take. They recognize it in the feeling of empowerment on the part of their team members and the innovative thinking that emerges.
An Inclusive Mindset
Our research revealed that the best inclusive leaders are most effective at regularly inviting feedback from people who think, look or behave differently from them. In fact, 43 percent of those surveyed said this action was most important in exhibiting an inclusive mindset. While recognizing their own unconscious biases and accounting for them was the second most important factor, valuing the actions associated with inviting feedback from others speaks volumes about the need to go beyond self-reflection and manifest the behaviors they want to see among their team.
At the same time, while seeking input from others is the top action an inclusive leader can take, leaders told us they must first work on readjusting their own thinking. One of the primary obstacles to demonstrating an inclusive mindset is a leader’s ability to check their own unconscious bias. Time and risk adversity were also obstacles our leaders mentioned. When time is of the essence, leaders say it’s easier to fall back on familiar thoughts, people and patterns of behavior. The intentionality of inclusion is lost in favor of choosing sameness.
Ultimately, leaders know they are successful in encouraging inclusive thoughts and actions when they hear people speaking up, challenging them and engaging in healthy debate. They want to see their people mirroring the actions of reaching out to others proactively to get a different point of view or insight. Ultimately, when they see this happen, they know they are successful in creating an inclusive environment.
An Agile Mindset
The most important capabilities of an agile leader are the ability to adapt to workplace dynamics and obstacles and rebound from challenges. In fact, 31 percent of respondents identified adapting to workplace dynamics as the top skill of agility followed by 28 percent who cited the ability to bounce back from challenges.
For the agile leader, it’s the ability to overcome obstacles and bounce back from challenges that are most prized. Agile leaders are shedding old processes and procedures in favor of alternative and innovative approaches. But in order to do that, they need to be comfortable with the uncomfortable — with moving ahead with partial information or a plan that is not fully hatched. The point is that an agile leader is flexible enough to adjust or adapt their plan based on new information or new conditions. Much like the growth-oriented leader, agile leaders are not afraid of failure — they see it as part of the process.
Leaders can only be agile if their environment allows them some flexibility in how they execute their plans. When leaders are mired down in a consensus-driven culture, their ability to be flexible is significantly compromised. Leaders told us some of their biggest challenges in being more agile involve organizational structures that are dependent on cumbersome processes and approvals from multiple stakeholders. Much like the challenges they face in taking on a growth mindset, if their organization encourages them to make decisions and take actions but then punishes failures instead of highlighting learning opportunities, leaders are hard pressed to embody an agile stance.
Organizations would be well-served to support the agile leader, since success for these individuals results in empowered and autonomous teams with a “we got this” mentality. Success in encouraging agility also means leaders see teams take incremental action even in the face of uncertainty because they know that doing something is better than sitting and waiting for perfection, which really results in no movement at all.
An Enterprise Mindset
he findings on an enterprise mindset were the most sobering. e found that the best enterprise-thinking leaders do some basic things. They link team performance to organizational outcomes, and they provide clarity around goals. And while this may seem abundantly logical, it became clear that just because leaders should be taking these actions doesn’t mean that they are.
What we heard was that when leaders are fundamentally able to help individuals link the work they do and the work the team does to company goals, they are fostering an enterprise mindset. Employees get caught up in the day-to-day activities that can sometimes feel disconnected from a larger purpose. So, it’s the role of the leader to draw those connections time and time again.
Progressing From Awareness to Transformation
Leaders can move from awareness to transformation, but it can only happen with a dual focus on mindset and action. Self-awareness and reflection on one’s current mindset is the first step. Trying on new perspectives can then follow. But, ultimately, people know what their leaders stand for by their actions.