Is this the Holy Grail for Effective Leadership?

The term ‘holy grail’ is often used to describe something highly sought after or earnestly pursued. Whether you are a leader in a ministry environment or a business environment, great leaders are always looking for ways to lead better. But is there such thing as a ‘holy grail’ for effective leadership? Probably not. However, recently I learned a concept that although it may not qualify as THE ultimate key for effective leadership, it probably should be a competency leaders should develop. It’s called a growth mindset.

Growth mindset versus fixed mindset…

I recently read Thanks for the Feedback by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone. I highly recommend the book. In one section they unpack a concept related to our personal identity: growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. Simply put, leaders with fixed mindsets believe that their abilities and traits are fixed and finished. Leaders with a growth mindset believe that they are capable of constantly growing and changing.

Heen and Stone write about Professor Carol Dweck’s study at Stanford University on how children cope with failure. She used a puzzle experiment with kids. She had a group of kids engage with progressively harder and harder puzzles. Some kids gave up. And to her surprise, some kids actually became more engaged the more difficult the puzzles became.

After these experiments she talked with the kids. Kids who gave up felt that the harder puzzles made them look dumb. However, the kids who persisted believed that the harder puzzles made them get better at solving puzzles and said that their experience was actually fun.

Neither interest nor aptitude made a difference in their responses. For the kids who stopped, they assumed that their skill at solving puzzles was a fixed trait. The kids who persisted felt that their puzzle-solving ability was a flexible trait and they believed they could change and grow.

Dweck explained that the kids who refused to quit didn’t feel that they were failing even though they couldn’t solve every puzzle. They believed they were learning. For them, the puzzle was more like a coach and less like a referendum on their abilities or intelligence.

As I read this fascinating study, it struck me how important a growth mindset is for effective leadership. If we feel that our competencies and abilities are static, what we were born with, we won’t personally grow nor will our leadership grow. However, when we face difficult challenges and believe that God has given us the capacity to grow and develop, we’ll become more effective leaders.

So, how might we develop a growth mindset?

1. Be aware of the stories we tell ourselves.

The term metacognition means to think about what we are thinking about. The next time you face a difficult leadership challenge, pause and listen to your self-talk (practice metacognition). Do the stories you are telling yourself reflect a fixed or growth mindset? Do the same when you work with others. Listen to the stories you are telling yourself about them.

2. Recognize that an anxious feeling about a leadership challenge does not imply you lack faith or don’t have what it takes.

Our brains are wired to dislike uncertainty. When we face an uncertain leadership challenge, the fight-flight center of our brain releases hormones into our blood stream and neurotransmitters into our brain. This results in unpleasant emotions we feel, like anxiety. Remind yourself that leadership challenges are uncertain and to feel a bit anxious is normal. It has nothing to do with your ability to handle the challenge.

3. Include learning as a goal when faced with a leadership challenge. 

When we face a leadership challenge, we certainly want to solve the problem or overcome the challenge. However, the next time you face the challenge, include as one measure of success what you actually learn about yourself and the problem area. Learning may actually serve you better in the long term than solving the problem.

4. Don’t fear failure.

The possibility of failure should never keep us from facing new challenges in life or leadership. The prophet Isaiah addressed fear when he wrote these words.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.  (Is 41.10)

So, a growth mindset may not be the ‘holy grail’ of effective leadership, but it can make a profound difference in how well you lead.

What do you think about a growth versus a fixed mindset? Where do you see yourself? 

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