During my term as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, I enjoyed dropping in on classes from time to time to learn from our world-class faculty and to chat with students. Whenever I asked, "How many of you want to be leaders?" everyone in the room instantly raised their hands.
A few years later, as an administrator at a large state university, I frequently asked students the same question. But usually fewer than half of those in the room put up their hands.
What explains the difference? Talent wasn't the issue. Both institutions are blessed with bright, hard-working young men and women. Nor was instruction a problem. Both institutions employ top-notch faculty. The difference, I'm convinced, was rooted in mindset.
At the Naval Academy—and I speak from experience as an alumnus—you learn from the very first day that leadership is a journey, and it's to be undertaken by everyone. Leadership is not the province of the select few; you can work at it, and you can get better. While you're not expected to take charge when you first set foot on campus, the expectation is you will become an effective leader—and your entire four years at the Academy are designed to develop you, step by step, into one.
The state university I served, like most universities and colleges in the U.S., invests heavily in equipping students with the knowledge and practical skills they need to succeed in the workplace. And indeed, it does a very good job of that. Less emphasis, however, is placed on developing leadership skills across the entire student body.
Looked at from that perspective, the divergent ways in which students reacted to my question becomes more understandable. If you live in a culture where your colleagues believe you can be a leader and help you develop the skills you need, you will enthusiastically embrace the mantle of leadership. It might not be your goal to become a CEO or a top politician. But, regardless of your occupation, you will view yourself as a leader at home, at work, and in your community. But if you live in a culture that assumes leadership is not for everyone, is dependent on whether you have innate leadership skills, and that leadership is defined by your job title rather than your actions, you will have an entirely different view.
Unfortunately, that's the culture that most of us live in, not just in the U.S. but around the world.
Recently I've enjoyed reading about the work of Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
. Her research explores and explains questions that have interested me for years as a leader. Essentially, she has found that people generally exhibit what she calls either "growth mindsets" or "fixed mindsets." Those with growth mindsets believe they can get better at what they do, that they have reservoirs of untapped potential. They realize that promise by working hard and making incremental improvements over time, whether they are athletes, or writers, or surgeons.
Those with fixed mindsets, however, believe they can only go as far as their natural abilities will take them. They think talent, rather than hard work, is the fundamental component of success. They are often scared to challenge themselves because they are terribly afraid of failure—which, in their minds, is an indictment of their abilities rather than an opportunity to learn and do better next time.
This notion of fixed and growth mindsets, which I've seen on display not only in universities but in virtually every social and professional setting in my 40-year career, has crucial implications for leaders. There are three questions, in particular, we must ask ourselves:
First, how effectively are you managing your organization's talent?
In the rush to get things done, especially during a severe recession, it's tempting to single out your top 10% for development and forget about everyone else. But from the standpoint of a growth mindset, you're letting a lot of potential throughout your organization go untouched.
Obviously, that's not good for those men and women, many of whom probably crave opportunities to develop but are languishing instead. In the long run, it won't be good for your organization's leadership pipeline or your bottom line either.
Second, does your organizational culture permit risk taking and mistakes?
We of course don't want the kind of egregious mistakes and completely irresponsible gambles that helped lead to our current economic crisis. But innovation does require making some strategic bets, some of which will pay off and some of which will fail. A growth mindset sees those failures as great opportunities to learn. When resources are tight, it's natural to conserve them. But taking a defensive stance now might short-circuit your long-term efforts to move into new markets and develop new products. Many influential organizations, from Hewlett-Packard ( (HPQ)
) to CNN, flourished because of bold moves made during tough times.
Finally, are you resting on your laurels as a leader?
It can be hard to stay hungry over time. The more experience you gain and the more successes you have, the more likely you are to believe there's not much left to learn.
A growth mindset, of course, calls for exactly the opposite. Arizona State University invited President Obama to deliver its commencement address last month. But it declined to give him an honorary degree, noting that his professional body of work is not yet extensive enough to merit one. A media flap predictably followed. Obama handled the situation skillfully, however, acknowledging the hard work that still lies ahead of him and encouraging the graduating class always to focus on "the daily labor, the many individual acts, the choices large and small that add up over time, over a lifetime, to a lasting legacy."
It's incumbent upon all of us as leaders to do the same.