3. Establish Your Leadership Mindset – Peak Leadership Fitness:Elevating Your Leadership Game



Working toward the pinnacle of either physical or leadership fitness requires mental toughness. Being mentally tough begins by having the right mindset. Mindsets are shaped over an extended period through many experiences, and they can vary wildly. That is good news because it means you can shape your mindset.

Being at one’s best requires focus, confidence, and resilience—that is, knowing your purpose and mission, believing in yourself, being able to overcome obstacles, and bouncing back from setbacks. It also requires a focus on growth—yours and those you lead. Leaders with that type of mindset can see everyone’s potential. They seek and provide those opportunities, overcome and remove obstacles, and learn from successes and missteps.

This chapter covers what constitutes a leadership mindset, why it is important, and how to develop yours.

What Is a Leadership Mindset?

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck (2006) writes about a fixed versus a growth mindset. Fixed mindsets believe that intelligence and abilities are set traits, which typically results in avoiding risk or failure. With a growth mindset, you see yourself as a work in progress.

Both shape how you approach leadership, particularly the important aspects involving feedback, self-awareness, and your ongoing development. You need to determine how you view your ongoing development and whether you have a realistic view of your possibilities. Then you need to decide what you are willing to do about it—what actions (if any) you are willing to take toward self-improvement. This is about personal choice, belief in yourself, and understanding the role of your environment. There is a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity in your environment, and your mindset refers to the confidence you have in your ability to navigate or adapt to it.

To understand a leadership mindset, I’ve combined Dweck’s view of mindset with the notion that leadership is about establishing a compelling vision, motivating and inspiring others to follow that vision, developing others to their fullest potential, and delivering results that matter. Having a leadership mindset is not about being the perfect leader or striving for some unachievable status. Instead, it is about recognizing development areas within yourself and others, and proactively seeking ways to improve upon them.

A leadership mindset is essentially the belief in yourself or your abilities as a leader. A negative leadership mindset is rooted in self-doubt, uncertainty, and lack of inquiry. A positive one, on the other hand, is based on a realistic view of yourself, your potential, and how you view potential of others. It is grounded in effort and further characterized by curiosity, welcoming change, moving beyond the status quo, commitment, and a willingness to take on activities outside your comfort zone.

In Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s 2016 book, Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise, they emphasize that mindset is the result of the interplay between learning and performance, with the greatest amount of attention being placed on continuous learning. This allows you to hone your skills and get better, which is best achieved with what the authors refer to as “deliberate practice.” When results and actions don’t go as planned, how do you respond? Is it defeating or is it a learning opportunity?

Expanding the limits of and operating outside your comfort zone is paramount to developing a leadership mindset. It requires grit, perseverance, and passion. Grit is a measure of individual resilience and confidence that may predict success. Perseverance is your drive or “fire in the belly,” as some refer to it. It is a function of your overall effort and willingness to work through difficult challenges. Passion is closely linked to purpose. It is the why behind what you do. Practically speaking, your leadership mindset acts as that little voice inside your head that says “you got this” or “you’re in trouble.”

However, there are many variables that factor into your leadership mindset. The following definition illustrates the complexity associated with establishing a leadership mindset.

Leadership Mindset

An honest and accurate belief in your ability to take on and successfully complete challenging assignments. A leadership mindset:

» requires focus, curiosity, commitment, effort, grit, determination, and resilience

» includes a relentless focus on your continuous improvement, ongoing development, and the development of others to elevate performance—yours, your team’s, and the organization’s

» requires being comfortable operating outside your comfort zone

» reinforces a “bring it on” approach to challenging, complex, and uncertain tasks

» effectively leverages the support and expertise of others as needed

» balances people and performance to create an inspiring and productive environment

» allows you to proactively learn from failures and successes and help others do the same.

The operative aspects of a leadership mindset are continuous improvement, focus on performance, embracing change, engaging and developing others, viewing setbacks as part of the learning process, and a willingness to take on and learn from challenging tasks. It requires that you are mentally tough and emotionally connected.

You’ve Got This

Scott was a leader I worked with to strengthen his leadership mindset. One of Scott’s biggest areas of self-doubt involved presenting in front of executives. Unfortunately for him, his job required him to do so often. He rarely—if ever—felt as though he did a decent job.

Scott and I discussed the possible reasons for this feeling of failure, including the amount of preparation, the topics, the various executives in the room, and other similar ideas. He recalled a few instances from several years earlier when his meetings did not go well. But that was a long time ago, and he had given many successful presentations since then. He told me that he always went into the meetings with high anxiety despite how it looked on the outside. However, there was not one single reason that explained his anxiety.

Then we had a profound breakthrough. He and I happened to be meeting immediately prior to an executive meeting where he was on the agenda. I asked him how he felt about it, and he said, “I feel really great today. I’m going to nail it.”

Not wanting to throw him off, I resisted asking why. After the meeting, I didn’t even need to ask how it went because Scott saw me in the hallway as he walked out of the room and gave me a thumbs-up with a smile and a head nod. I nodded back, returned the thumbs-up, and motioned with my head over to an open meeting room.

“Congratulations!” I said, immediately following up with, “Why do you think you nailed it?”

His energy still showing from the meeting, he said, “Well, Tim, you may recall that at the last meeting I didn’t have to present. So, I watched Jessica, Beth, and Ben do a fantastic job. After that meeting, I asked each what their trick was to make it so good and effortless. They talked about how they viewed their time with executives as a partnership and a conversation—that the feedback they received was a good thing intended to move their project forward. And then they asked me how I made my presentations so consistently good. Beth even said she had gotten a lot of her inspiration from watching me present and making it go so well. I couldn’t believe it.

“Tim, I’ve been taking the executives’ questions and comments personally,” he continued. “They caused me to doubt myself in the moment and sometimes after the meeting. I made a conscious effort to change the way I think about my presentations and my ability to engage the exec team.

“And that’s not all,” Scott said. “I did a bit more planning this time than in the past. In addition to the prep work I usually do ahead of time, I talked to a few of the executives prior to the meeting to run some of my ideas by them. I had a good sense of what the hot-button issues were and that gave me a lot of confidence.”

“That’s a great approach and insight,” I said.

“That confidence I gained from talking with the others stuck with me all week,” Scott replied. “I was putting too much pressure on myself to be perfect every time. And I couldn’t believe that one of my peers looked up to the way I presented. In fact, I thought about that a lot the two days leading up to today’s meeting. The more I thought about it, the better I felt.”

Scott continued to draw on his successes and reframe how he approached that aspect of his leadership skill set prior to and during future meetings. The feedback he had received from his peers in the form of micromentoring was extremely beneficial to his shift in mindset. In the end, by taking a more proactive approach and with more experience and feedback, he came to believe more in himself.

The Importance of a Leadership Mindset

Talent and intelligence make up a small amount of your capability—it has been estimated at no more than 30 percent, and some consider that generous. The remaining 70 percent is made up of grit, perseverance, and passion, the same characteristics that make up your mindset. That is why you hear savvy leaders say to hire for passion and motivation; you can always train for skill.

Knowing this, your leadership mindset is important for four reasons:

• It influences how you approach tasks.

• It shapes your interactions with those you lead.

• It drives how you approach learning and development for yourself and others.

• It affects your and others’ success.

In all cases, your leadership mindset drives action. The big question, though, is whether it is the right action to be the leader you want to be. In other words, does your leadership mindset drive you to take on more ambitious challenges or play it safe? Taking the time to ask questions, listen, and withhold judgment demonstrates confidence and professional maturity. Authentic curiosity associated with a leadership mindset drives engagement and often leads to success in the age of disruption.

In terms of task, your mindset determines your ability to withstand, bounce back from, and triumph over adversity. Let’s face it, leadership is not always easy. It has been said that if you believe you cannot do something, you’re probably right.

When it comes to leadership, do you have a can-do mindset or one of doubt and uncertainty? Your answer is important because it will influence how you approach both basic and complex challenges. How are you equipped to respond when leadership gets tough?

Your leadership mindset is not only task focused; it will also affect how you interact with those you lead. What expectations do you have for others? A leadership mindset is tolerant of some failures—not necessarily the repeated or careless kind, but the ones involving risk. They reinforce learning from successes and mistakes. These leaders have a growth mindset not just for themselves but for those they lead. And because of how they view potential (both theirs and those they lead), they tend to be more optimistic. They will challenge others to stretch beyond their comfort zone because of that potential. However, there is a shadow side to this. Leaders with a growth mindset can easily develop expectations that are too high for themselves or those they lead, which may result in a lower tolerance for missteps.

When it comes to your own development, look for opportunities to experiment, learn, and grow. Leaders who do are often their own greatest critics when it comes to expectations. They set a high standard for themselves, but are willing to continuously grow through experience and feedback. Speaking of feedback, leaders with a growth mindset seek it out. Over time, they’ll develop a skill for providing honest, accurate feedback. Rather than letting feedback trigger their defense mechanisms, these leaders view it as an opportunity for insight and growth.

No one is perfect when it comes to self-awareness. Instead, it comes down to degrees of accuracy. Some leaders I have worked with are extremely off base in how they think they are showing up as a leader compared with where they actually are; others are more accurate. When mindset does not meet reality, you may come across as having misplaced confidence in yourself, or you may fear being “found out” as incapable. Neither option is a particularly good or healthy place to be. If you are open to feedback, you can turn things around. However, if you are not willing to accept how you are being perceived, it may have a very different and far more negative outcome.

One of my favorite activities to reinforce self-review is to give yourself a grade. For example, when you present to executives, give feedback to one of your direct reports, or assess your general leadership, grade yourself on an A through F scale. The grade itself is not as important as your rationale. If you continuously give yourself As, you probably have an inflated sense of self. Similarly, your grades should not all be C or below. As you refine this skill, your ability to do regular self-checks will go a long way toward not just your mindset, but also the actions you take as a leader. If you go for several weeks without giving yourself an A in a critical aspect of leadership (such as developing others), then you need to be proactive in doing what is necessary to change that.

Keep in mind that testing your limits and stretching outside your realized capabilities is where development happens. It becomes a continuous cycle. The successes achieved along the way reinforce your leadership mindset. Similarly, the obstacles also reinforce your mindset because you learn how to work through them.

The key to ensuring the cycle remains positive and growth-minded depends on reflection and learning. It is important to think about your successes and failures—what you learned and what you would do the same or differently in the future.

How to Develop Your Leadership Mindset

Your leadership mindset is formed over time, through experience and feedback. It needs to be developed like a muscle—stretched through practice and recovered through reflection. Look for small daily and weekly wins that reinforce what you are capable of. Many leaders I’ve worked with surprise themselves with the number of little wins they experience, such as having a difficult conversation with someone they lead, giving a presentation to their peers, and discussing an idea with members of the executive team.

Changing your mindset involves both action and reflection. For action, you must be willing to take risks and not be afraid to fail. However, failing by itself will not contribute to a positive leadership mindset; you need to reflect upon what you learned from that failure and realize that you can overcome it.

Practice is not the only way to evolve your mindset. You also develop it through preparation. In fact, the amount and type of preparation you do as a leader can mean the difference between reacting and responding to a situation. Are you going through the motions as a leader? Are you simply trying to stay ahead of the next meeting or project? Or, are you balancing the fast pace of work with targeted training based on your specific development needs? When you train, you become better prepared to handle a variety of situations. On the other hand, without proper training, you will simply continue to react, which may not give you the results you want.

You still must take that first step to understand what is possible. You’re probably familiar with the expression “ignorance is bliss.” Sometimes not knowing what to expect can help encourage you to take that first step. For example, one leader who had recently finished graduate school told me he might not have pursued the degree if he had known how hard it would be and the sacrifices he would need to make along the way. I have heard similar sentiments expressed by leaders who took on complex projects at work. In these big, audacious tasks, it is important to accumulate minor moments of success to drive you forward. These moments show progress, reinforce what is possible, and provide excellent learning opportunities. After all, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

When it comes to building your leadership mindset, motivation is also important. However, you may be surprised to learn that motivation alone will not make the biggest difference in how your leadership mindset evolves. Motivation comes and goes throughout our lives, but routine builds consistency regardless of obstacles. It is a driving force behind strengthening your leadership mindset, so it is essential to instill good habits.

Toward a Leadership Mindset

Jen worked at a large consulting organization in the Midwest as the head of its strategy practice. She had grown within the organization, developing some strong relationships along the way from junior analyst to her current role. Jen had a great vision and ability to inspire and motivate her team, but she had to work harder to master the details of some team processes. She was more comfortable with conceptual, big-picture, and strategy activities. Jen was extremely driven, but she was hard on herself. Her team was inspired by her vision and impressed with her energy and passion. Jen believed she needed to be excellent at everything—that she couldn’t have or show any weakness or vulnerability. Her inner voice would always tell her that good was not good enough. As a result, she would take on more, work extra hours to prove herself, and according to her, “pick up the slack” that she thought she was exhibiting. Although Jen proactively sought feedback, she was always her worst critic. After a while, incessant mea culpas can wear on people.

Ava, Jen’s former boss, was now her friend and mentor. They had worked closely on many projects until she went to another company. Normally Jen and Ava would talk every few weeks, but because of Jen’s schedule, it had been difficult for them to connect lately. When Ava was finally able to find time in Jen’s schedule, six months had passed and they had a lot of catching up to do. Their talk quickly shifted from friends and family to work.

As they talked, it became clear that Jen was at a breaking point. She was harder on herself than ever, and despite often being first in the office and one of the last to leave, she thought she wasn’t logging enough hours to get everything done. She told Ava that she felt like no matter what she did, it wasn’t enough; she needed guidance.

Ava knew this was serious, but to lighten the mood, she reminded Jen, “This is work. You’re never supposed to get it all done.” Then they scheduled time to talk every few weeks. In addition, Ava told Jen to call on her way home from work whenever she needed to let off steam. Ava typically got Jen to laugh a little during these conversations, and the lightness helped a lot.

Over the next several months Ava asked Jen questions about what drove her, what success looked like, and why she was a consultant and a leader. She asked about Jen’s team, what they were working on, and how they were doing. Then Ava listened.

Their talks developed a recurring theme, and Jen came to realize that she was focusing only on performance—usually just her own. Because she never paused or reflected on what she was doing, she was completely missing the dimensions about learning and helping others develop. And because she was so busy putting pressure on herself, she never delegated or spent time truly developing others. She would often say, “I can’t ask anyone to do anything I’m not willing to do myself,” “I need to lead by example,” or “It’s easier if I just do this myself rather than try and teach someone.”

These comments were the tipping point for Ava. She felt a certain responsibility to do, well, what some might call an intervention. So, she called Jen and suggested they have dinner at their favorite restaurant.

After their orders were taken, Ava asked, “How does your staff react when you say you’d rather do something by yourself than try to teach someone? If I’d said that to you when I was your boss, you would have been insulted, right?” Leading by example is one thing, Ava asserted, but when the example becomes off-putting, staff can clearly see it.

As Jen listened, Ava reminded her that nearly all new software products are incomplete when brought to big trade shows and there is a reason why products are labeled 2.0 and 2.5 and 3.0.

“Jen, nothing is ever complete and perfect,” she said. “It would be OK for you to say, hey, this is 80 percent complete, just as everyone else does.”

Jen got the point. After a few more dinners and informal coaching, she was able to break through her perfection complex and become a more balanced team leader. However, being aware of the imbalance was just the tip of the iceberg. Jen would often catch herself trying to tackle it all, but now she would recognize that she was slipping back into her old mindset. Eventually that happened less and less over time.

Once Jen realized that her strengths were in setting the vision and motivating and developing her team, she set out to leverage them and actively develop future leaders. Additionally, when she recognized that she needed more help addressing team processes and details, she identified someone on her team to delegate some of these responsibilities.

It was through understanding and accepting her limitations and learning from her past that Jen became a better leader.

Tracking Your Performance

In any environment—home, school, or the workplace—your mindset is not just about you. Think of someone in a leadership position, whether it is someone you once knew or someone you don’t know, whose concept of leadership is inward only and whose staff turnover is chronic. I bet you can objectively say to yourself, “Wow, I don’t want to be like that leader.”

In his 2010 book, The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success, Scott Eblin describes how important it is for leaders to know which behaviors to let go of and which to develop to be effective, as well as how self-awareness and taking action that leverages others (delegation and collaboration) are behaviors to refine. The best leaders know how to use others to make their teams more than the sum of their parts. At the heart of a leadership mindset is self-awareness, personal growth, and relationship development.

As you develop and hone your leadership mindset, be sure to occasionally step outside your comfort zone. Continue looking for the little wins and lessons learned, and take time to reflect on them.