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The Growth vs Fixed Mindset: Where do “Leaders” fall?

“When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world – the world of fixed traits – success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other – the world of changing qualities – it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.” – Carolyn Dweck: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

The growth mindset and the fixed mindset. How does that echo in leadership? I’m going to introduce a bit of a twist here.

A little while ago I read a speech to West Point’s graduating class by William Deresiewicz [] that spoke of our educational system and the conspiracy on the part of bastions of higher education to train people to run with the pack, to replicate existing modes of thinking and doing things vs. to encourage innovation by audacious moves and original thought. One of the essential elements for the latter was the willingness for true leaders to experience solitude and to stand alone.

Just by being in these revered institutions, students learn the inside tricks of emulating existing successes and become good at aping and pleasing the higher ups to curry favour and gain steps on the ladder. A side product of going to the “great schools”? One gains the contacts and learns the manners of the current winners so the earnest student can adopt their ways and get ahead. But the result is that the supposed “leaders” are just the best at being able to run with the pack.

Deresiewicz puts the thesis that this system [definitely in effect!], is not producing people we like to mythologize as “leaders”. Sure, lots of these clones are in positions of leadership. They got there by religiously climbing the ladder in the prescribed ways. They are taught to be conformists.

They have the titles but they do not exhibit the traits we ascribe to “leaders”.

Leaders are first and foremost, people others want to follow. Seems simple doesn’t it? But you don’t cultivate lasting followership unless you’re really interesting.

That’s not to say the others don’t have followers. They do! They have followers who want to do what they do, act the way they act, because that person is a few rungs up on the ladder of success. And those followers want the security that comes with higher position. And to validate themselves as “smart people”. Among the elect.

But interesting people have followers because people grow around them. They are like water to flowers. And they flower themselves, unapologetically and ravishingly. They show their difference for all to see. Think of Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seahawks.

And leaders are into the new. They are all about seeking the novel way, the unusual approach that may lead to different results. They do not seek the safe and proven way. Well, they’re not stupid. But they are not afraid to try something new.

The replicates are into precedent. They want proof it has been safely done before before they will sanction the step. Caution and prudence.

And leaders are resolute in their difference. They do not stint in their persistence following the dictates of their curiosity or a path of development. They don’t mind if you’re with them or not. They are not going to be swayed.
And they are into failure as an avenue to growth – not to be avoided as evidence of imperfection. They fail openly and honestly and learn from those episodes. Failure is anathema to the replicates. They don’t want to get any of that on them.

Courage is part of the package of traits we discern leaders by. Courage is not required when following the herd. Courage is only needed when you are following a course apart from the commonly accepted way.

Which camp am I in? Am I a “leader” or an “emulator”? That’s the question people want to assess as they read. The evidence is you will want to comfort yourself by seeing yourself as a leader.   But there are large parts of emulator in all of us – and they are necessary!

What camp is Doug [me] allied with? Encouraging/ working with Leaders or emulators?

The answer may surprise you. I am firmly upstream – where it all starts. It starts with the mindset. Go back to the first quote – the one distinguishing between the growth mindset and the fixed one. I’m with the growth side – because I can’t have any effect on the fixed mindset. It is FIXED – static. There will be no real learning here.

What I find interesting is when the undeniable force of circumstance [that inevitably arrives for people in powerful positions] exerts itself on any part of the fixed mindset. It can’t stand up. It has to move and change. Guiding leaders embarking on that necessary but perilous exploration is the core of interesting and high impact mentoring work.

It’s at the frontier, the leading edge. Most leaders are at that edge. They have brought themselves to a place beyond which they have never been. New country, always. I am a guide in that new country. I haven’t been on your journey but I’m very familiar with the territory.

But when it comes to the leadership vs replicator debate, I have to land on both sides. There is a time for the audacious leadership we love to read about. But much of the world must continue to function as it has worked in the past. Even leaders who want to be ‘out there’ full time, had better understand existing modes of business and use or exploit them or they will be condemned to frustration. Part of my role is to broker both worlds to each other. To know both: encourage the leaders but temper their dash with the salt of reality.

But the core of leadership development is the appetite, the willingness to grow and change.

Carolyn Dweck again:
Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

Doug Bouey
Catalyst Strategic Consultants Ltd.

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Doug Bouey, President
Catalyst Strategic Consultants Ltd.

Calgary, AB // Phone: 403.777.1144


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