Exploring the leadership mindset

What is it that makes a great leader? Many books have been written on the subject, defining the skills, personality and behaviours that great leaders call on. But for me these have never gone far enough. Having encountered numerous people throughout my career who had all the ‘ingredients’ but were still unable to fulfil their potential, I realised something was missing. I believe that something is mindset.

What is a Mindset?

Great leadership is not just about the outward appearance, what others see us do, it is also about what goes on inside; the values, ideas, emotions, drivers and beliefs that shape our behaviours and influence how we apply the skills and knowledge we have. I define this as our mindset. Dweck describes a mindset as a powerful belief, Madison, describes mindset as a way of thinking, the various dictionary definitions describe mindset as a way of thinking, attitudes, mental inclinations and opinions.  Whichever definition you prefer, the general agreement is that a mindset is not cast in stone, it can be changed, or as Seligman says, ‘individuals can choose the way they think’.

Yet when looking to improve performance, many organisations typically focus on improving skills and competencies. More enlightened organisations also look to capitalise on individual strengths, self-awareness and preferences. My own research and experience suggests this still misses an essential ingredient, the mindset.  For it is our mindset that determines how we use our other attributes. Also, our mindset is an attribute adopted through choice. Whilst the wrong mindset can lead to us failing to achieve our potential, the right mindset can lead us to exceptional achievements, even in the face of extreme adversity. Gerstner suggests that the culture of organisations are shaped by the Leaders mindset. This suggests that adopting the right mindset is a powerful addition to every Leaders capability. To read more about Mindset see ‘It’s official, failure grows your brain’.

What is the Leadership Mindset?

My own research into published books, articles, studies, theories, models and attitudes on leadership, combined with coaching over 100 leaders across organisations led me to develop a model which summarises the mindset which exceptional leaders possess. This incorporates 5 elements which are crucial to effective leadership. Furthermore, whenever I hear a leader describe a challenge or issue they are struggling with, typically, the problem can be traced back to a blind spot in one of these 5 areas. So what are these 5 areas that comprise the Leadership mindset?


Model: The Mindset of Successful Leaders (MindSightUK 2017© )

Mindset Model small v0.1.png

The first element, is the pursuit of self-awareness. This involves not only understanding yourself and how you react to others, or to situations, but also your impact on other people. This involves understanding your own preferences, potential blind spots and emotional intelligence. It means knowing your strengths and weaknesses and being humble enough to accept you will always be on a journey of learning. Furthermore, this is not just about intellectual and emotional awareness, it is about renewal, which means being mindful and nurturing your physical, emotional and spiritual self (for example, through art, nature, creativity, music and so on). A leader who has a holistic and balanced approach to their own needs as a human being will be able to empathise and be mindful of the needs of those they lead. They will also role model the behaviours that demonstrate that self-care contributes to high performance and effective decision making; creating an environment that encourages others to do the same.

The second element requires leaders to embrace ambiguity. Many new leaders struggle with ambiguity when they step into the leadership space, unfortunately it comes with the job title. Organisations cannot move forward if they always stick with the known and certain. Change projects by definition are about riding the wave of ambiguity to take the organisation from the known current state, to the unknown, new state. Many new leaders struggle to let go of control, being used to a hands-on, ‘I know what I’m doing’ and ‘I can make it happen’ approach. This is understandable as this detailed knowledge and expertise is probably what made them successful in the first place. However, if you are trying to lead others it is not possible, nor advisable to spend the majority of your time being hands-on down in the detail. You are being paid to set the direction, keep abreast of challenges, look upwards and  outwards to spot potential opportunities (or challenges) and motivate others to make change happen. These things are not possible if your eyes are focused downwards on a spreadsheet or project plan. This inevitably means you will spend a lot of your time feeling you do not know enough, you will be found to be not as good as others thought you were (Young describes this as imposter syndrome), or that your only certainty is uncertainty. This is not a comfortably space to be operating in. That said, embracing this discomfort, finding the courage to trust in others abilities and then leading them towards future possibilities in an uncertain, complex and changing context is the role of leadership.

Ask yourself who you would like to work for? Is it someone who knows all the answers and tells you what to do, or someone who is curious to explore your ideas and stretch your thinking? The third element of the leadership mindset requires you to be a passionately curious leader. Leslie argues that the enquiring minds of the people within organisations are their most valuable assets. Consider why this is the case. Curious leaders focus on outcomes, not outputs, or process. They relish stretching and developing others so that they can flourish. Curious leaders ask great questions that get others exploring ideas further. They develop the critical thinking skills of others, equipping them with the ability to ask great questions of themselves, explore new ideas and seek new sources of inspiration. Curious leaders have a growth mindset, seeking to learn, to explore and to expand their understanding, seeing the process of learning as exciting and energising in itself. This passionate curiosity generates an excitement which is contagious to others, creating a culture of learning, optimism and creativity. A curious leader does not ‘tell’, rather they inquire and seek to understand how others see and interpret the world. From this position great insight and ideas can evolve.

So onto the fourth element. Outstanding leaders relish developing others, stretching their potential and capitalising on their capabilities. This creates an environment in which others can flourish and grow in confidence, trusting in their own self-efficacy.  The more people in organisations believe they have the skills, behaviours and abilities to achieve new things and overcome challenges, the more hope and optimism will abound. Hope and optimism are the energy engines that carry people through challenging times. Leaders must role model, encourage and fuel hope and optimism in those they lead. Seligman suggests that at the heart of optimism is the ability to change the destructive things we say to ourselves, not just what we say but how we say it, for example, avoiding phrases like ‘we can’t’ in favour of phrases such as ‘how can we?’, or as Dweck suggests, using the word ‘yet’ to complete sentences such as ‘I don’t know the answer to this problem’. The word ‘yet’ opens us up to the potential for growth through endeavour and exploration rather than seeing problems as insurmountable. Optimism is not achieved through Pollyanna style empty statements of blind faith, but by highlighting the skills, capabilities, past successes and achievements that are already in the bag. Leaders can encourage optimism by instilling the belief in those they lead that with the resources available, a willingness to explore, an openness to learning, a bit of courage and our combined endeavour, ‘we will succeed and flourish!’

Finally, it is a small world and the fifth element recognises this. Those we meet on the way up the career path we will surely meet again, how will they treat us? What will they remember about us? What will they tell others about us? Great leaders do not leave ‘bodies’ in their wake, rather they value relationships, nurture trust and act with integrity. They act out the long game in relationships, preferring to aim as Covey says, for win/win, not win/lose. They recognise that they cannot know all the answers, nor can they see or understand all the information available (there is just too much) and they certainly don’t have the time, capacity or energy to do everything themselves. Scheine advises leaders to leave their own ego at the door and rather than focusing on always having the answer, seek to explore the ideas of others with a genuine desire to understand why they think the way they do. Being able to admit to not fully understanding something, or not having all the information also requires a willingness to display vulnerability, something some leaders shy away from in case it somehow depicts them as weak. However, Brown suggests that being able to show vulnerability, displays trust and draws people to us, seeing vulnerability as at the centre of meaningful human experiences.  Great Leaders see the benefit of seeking out, building and sustaining trusting relationships in advance of problems arising, or help being needed. They adopt a ‘pay it forward mentality’, showing genuine interest and concern for others, operating from a values driven perspective.This encourages others to trust them and to reciprocate by valuing the relationship.

These 5 elements of the leadership mindset have stood the test of time and experience with leaders I have encountered across organisations and industry sectors. So ask yourself, how might they apply in your own organisation?


 References underpinning the model and great further reading

Avey, J.,Wernsing, T.S. and Luthans,F. (2008).Can positive employees help positive organizational change?: Impact of Psychological Capital and Emotions on relevant attitudes and behaviours. The Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, 44(1), 48-70.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. London: Penguin.

Covey, S.R. (1992). Principle-centred Leadership. London: Simon & Schuster.

Covey, S.R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Free Press.

Covey, S.M.R & Merrill, R.R. (2006). The Speed of Trust: The one thing that changes everything. New York: Free Press.

De Bono, E. (1999). Six Thinking Hats. London: Penguin.

Dweck, C. S. Dr. (2012). Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd.

Fredrickson, B.L. (2009). Positivity, London: OneWorld Publications.

Gallwey, W. T (2010) The Inner Game of Tennis. New York: Random House.

Gerstner, L. (2002). Who says elephants can’t dance? Leading a great enterprise through dramatic change. London: Harper Collins

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence; Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.

Goleman, D., & Boyatzis, R. (2008). Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership. [Article]. Harvard Business Review, 86(9), 74-81.

Jensen. S.M. (2012). Psychological Capital: Key to understanding entrepreneurial stress? Economics & Business Journal, 4(1), 44-55.

Madison, C. (2015). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Amazon Publications.

Marquardt, M. (2014) Leading with questions. San Francisco:John Wiley and Sons.

Leslie, I.,(2014), Curious: The desire to know and why your future depends on it. London: Quercus Editions Ltd

Lopez,S.J.(2013). Making Hope Happen: Create the future you want for yourself and others. New York: Atria Paperback.

Luthans, F.,Youssef-Morgan, C.M. & Avolio, B.J. (2015).Psychological Capital and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scheine, E.H. (2013). Humble Inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Schulman, P. (1999). Applying learned optimism to increase sales productivity. Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, 19(1),p31-37.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2006).Learned Optimism: how to change your mind and your life. New York, Vintage Books.

Young, V. (2011). The secret thoughts of successful women: Why capable people suffer from the impostor syndrome and how to thrive in spite of it. New York:Crown Business