Skip to content

Great Leaders Learn To Shift Their Mindset

2018 April 25
by Greg Satell

In Mindset, psychologist Carol Dweck argues, based on decades of research, that how we see ourselves is a major factor in what we can achieve. Whether it is children in school or executives in a boardroom, the mindset people adopt has a significant influence on how they perform.

Yet what she doesn’t say is that we need different mindsets for different jobs. A successful mindset for one set of tasks may hinder our performance in another. For example, aggression and competitiveness may work great for a professional athlete on the field, but not so great for building a productive home life.

Most of the changes in mindset we need to make, however, are far more subtle. They lack the social and environmental cues of the delineation between work and home life. So we always need to be looking for when best practices in one area lead to poor performance in another and shift our mental models accordingly. In an age of disruption, we need to learn to adapt.

Being A Motivator vs. Being A Manager

In Drive, author Daniel Pink lays out what you need to motivate employees. He points out that decades of research have shown that financial incentives tend to be a poor motivator for most tasks and people are far more productive when they are intrinsically motivated. It’s much easier to get people to do what you want if they want what you want.

His research identifies three key factors in motivation, autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy gives people a feeling of control, opportunities to improve their mastery of skills helps them feel that they are making progress and purpose imbues work with meaning. None of these, it should be mentioned, are exorbitantly expensive.

However, managers often have conflicting interests. Giving people more autonomy sounds like a good idea in theory, but it makes it harder to coordinate work among a lot of people. Time devoted to training opportunities is time not devoted to productive work and giving people a sense of purpose sounds simple, but is much easier said than done.

So leaders must adopt two often competing mindsets, that of the enterprise and that of a trusted employee coach. That can be a challenge.

Managing Operations vs. Driving Innovation

A recent McKinsey report found that while 84% of corporate executives think innovation is key to achieving growth objectives, only 6% are satisfied with innovation performance in their firm. Part of the problem is that executives tend to rise through the ranks not through driving innovation, but by competently managing operations.

The truth is that there is often a tradeoff between innovation and operations. Good operational executives build consensus, get everybody to see things the same way and reduce variability to improve quality and efficiency. Innovators need to explore, seek out a diversity of views and accept the inevitable bugs and glitches that go along with doing something truly new.

Clearly, these are two very different mindsets and many are unable to traverse the two. Determined operators have a need to drive projects forward, while skilled innovators understand that sometimes you need to step back, change direction and give yourself options. They learn to accept failure as an inevitable pit stop on the way to success.

However, just as clearly, every organization needs to both innovate and optimize. The best leaders understand how to juggle mindsets.

Marketing And Publishing

Another case of dual mindsets that has arisen more recently is that of marketing and publishing. As I explained in a pair of articles in Harvard Business Review, marketers increasingly need to learn to think and to act like publishers if they want to be competitive in content-driven marketing.

A large part of marketers’ role within their organization is that of a customer advocate. They study consumers, identify their needs, work to ensure that those needs are fulfilled and message accordingly. This role is, necessarily, somewhat backward looking, focused on understanding trends and getting a sense of where they are going.

Publishers, on the other hand, are mission driven. They look to shape opinions and trends. Editors like Anna Wintour of Vogue and David Remnick of The New Yorker didn’t get to the top of their profession by telling readers what they want to hear, but by challenging them and expressing a clear point of view.

These two opposing mindsets explain why so many content marketers fail. They try to apply a marketing mindset to publishing by analyzing what customers want them to say and then delivering a message that conforms to expectations. The result is bland corporate-speak that goes largely unnoticed unless there is a major gaffe.

The One Thing That Every Leader Needs To Learn

The term “leader” is probably best defined as “one who has followers” because great leaders have little else in common. Some are extroverted and charismatic, others are introverted and cerebral. Some are visionary, while others are detail-oriented. Success is largely determined by how they apply their particular talents to the job at hand.

Peter Drucker famously said that “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things” and there is more than a little truth to that. More importantly, however, is that you need to apply the right mindset to the things you need to do. As should be clear by now, that’s not at all straightforward.

The main thing leaders do is make decisions, usually decisions that others in their organization are either unable or unwilling to make. These need to be made with limited information, in a rapidly changing context and under significant time constraints. No matter how smart or careful you are, you are going to get a lot wrong.

The one thing that all great leaders learn to accept is that it is their job to take responsibility for being wrong. They have to make decisions with the understanding that there may very well be a mess to clean up afterward and they will have to do it, without pointing fingers at anyone but themselves.

That’s why the most important mindset for leaders is to understand that being in charge doesn’t make you infallible, but it does make you accountable. Once you learn to accept that, everything else becomes easier.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in

Image: Pxhere

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS