The Oxford American Dictionary describes mindset as “an established set of attitudes held by someone.” The definition implies stagnation–something that resists change. But great leaders know they can’t settle for any mental model that limits their potential.
We develop a “mindset” from our mental models–those ingrained assumptions and generalizations we develop throughout life. These invisible threads of images gradually form the fabric of our thinking, which then influences how we understand the world and how we act and react. Sometimes we don’t even realize we have developed a mindset.
If we want to understand our mindset and change it, we must start by turning the mirror inward–by learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them robustly to scrutiny.
In my work with clients, I focus on the mindset leaders need to have to make the right decisions. In high-stakes situations, the decisions leaders make, fail to make, don’t know they should make, or allow the wrong people to make determine outcomes. Further, these pivotal decisions influence the mindset of others. Though we can’t observe mindset directly, we can infer the nature of it by the actions people take.
Mindset determines how we frame issues, what we believe, how we respond to setbacks, and how we interpret emotions such as fear and motivation.
My most successful clients embrace what I call a Learning Mindset. This mental model sets the stage for developing all other mindsets.
- They focus on the openness needed to unearth shortcomings in their present ways of seeing the world.
- They understand how their own actions create the problems they experience.
- They resist the temptation to make decisions in isolation. Rather, they understand how their position interacts with the larger system.
- They ask, “What might I learn by considering what I’m hearing?”
- They allow excitement, curiosity, passion, and achievement-drive to guide their decisions and actions.
- They develop both skills of reflection and skills of inquiry.
- They control their own fears and try to mitigate the negative emotions of others.
Leaders with a Learning Mindset don’t ignore, diminish, or deny fear; they accept it. They realize focusing on fear, even when trying to reduce it, won’t prove productive. Instead, they allow themselves and others to experience it but then give people things to do that provide a sense of accomplishment and momentum-the antidotes to the immobility fear can cause.
They also refuse to second-guess their tough calls; they ask for help from trusted advisors; and they eschew unsolicited feedback. Most of all, they trust their abilities to sail in uncharted seas.
The decision-making process involves more than evaluating what we see and hear; it’s a biological process. Cognition is part physiological, part psychological, and part contextual-but it’s not always rational. Leaders who have a mindset that leads to successful deals reduce the risk of cognitive biases and decision traps. They are systemic thinkers, discerning as well as curious. They remain open to new ideas without being naïve, and they avoid the trap of hubris.
A Learning Mindset recognizes that challenges aren’t permanent; talented people can figure things out; and even failure isn’t fatal. This allows leaders to learn from past missteps and helps them move past them, so people and organizations can thrive.
We venerate our sacred cows, traditions, and conventional approaches because they make us feel secure. But like all emotional security blankets, they unravel, and their usefulness fades. When we replace emotional responses with new attitudes and cognitive skills, and we challenge ourselves to take risks, reframe, and live well-thought-out beliefs instead of clinging to what we’ve always done, we open the door for new opportunities and optimism.