How to Think Like a Leader

how to think like a leader
  • Are you your own worst critic? Do you beat yourself up for all of the things you don’t know or for your mistakes?

  • Do you compare yourself to others?

  • Do you hate admitting when you don’t know something?

  • Do you get defensive when someone contradicts you or challenges you?

Most of us would answer “sometimes” to at least one of these questions.  If so, you probably know how exhausting it can feel to “keep up.” So what does this have to do with leadership? According to Carol Dweck, Stanford researcher and author of Mindset, the answer is everything

Want to Become a Better Leader? Start with Your Mindset

Carol Dweck’s work is compelling.  In simple language, she presents just two different mindsets – a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.  And according to her work, just by changing your mindset, you can dramatically change not only what you accomplish, but how you feel about what you accomplish. 

growth mindset carol dweck


Someone with a fixed mindset has an image of who they are.  They define themselves by what skills, traits and qualities they possess.  They make definitive statements that explain their successes or shortcomings (“I’ve always been a strategic thinker”  or “I’m not very good with numbers”).  They see these qualities as an inherent part of who they are. 

Here is how Carol Dweck describes a fixed mindset.  

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”

A fixed mindset seeks to protect.  It is limiting and exhausting.  Here’s an example: I work with a lot of high-achieving people.  On more than one occasion, I have heard them refer to themselves as ‘the smartest person in the room.’  Most don’t say it from ego.  It’s a matter-of-fact statement that has been the story of their childhood, high school, college and beyond.  

If someone views their successes as directly tied to a static trait or quality, then there is a pressure to keep it up.   Failures become directly tied to that trait and lead to deep insecurity and defensiveness.  Rather than risk calling their intelligence into question, it’s safer to choose situations that reinforce that self-assessment. 

“I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .”

Besides causing stress and a constant need to prove oneself, a fixed mindset can also lead to stagnation and boredom.  Rather than choosing situations that are challenging, a fixed mindset seeks to protect, and it may lead to making choices that  minimize risks.  As Dweck says, “Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better?”


A growth mindset leads to a well-lived life.  Rather than seeing yourself and your place in the world as static, you are able to see growth, opportunity and learning without the same sense of judgement.  It’s a mindset that doesn’t require perfection.  It accepts mistakes (both in yourself and in others) because a growth mindset allows for evolution. 

What about you?

What words do you use to describe yourself?  When someone asks you what has made you successful, what is your go-to answer?  What is the label or identifier that you have carried throughout your life?

  • I’ve always been the bookworm.

  • I’m a numbers person.

  • I’m the science geek.

  • Creative, outside-the-lines.

  • The social butterfly. A people-person.

Most of us have an identity that has defined not just how we think about ourselves, but also what we believe has led to our success. The potential downside is a belief that that identity is fixed and explains your success.  It becomes an image you need to protect. 

One of the hallmarks of a good leader is the ability to manage constant change.  It is also the ability to admit when they don’t know something or when they make a mistake.  They need a growth mindset.

How you can develop a growth mindset:

1.  Get over yourself.  Rather than denying or trying to cover up your own imperfections, own up to them.  We’re all flawed.  We all make mistakes.  We can all improve.  The sooner you admit that, the sooner you can get to work on learning and growing. 

2.  View mistakes as integral in your development as a person and as a leader.  Stop expecting perfection.  Instead see how you improve each time you do something.  Sometimes it’s easier to see this in your hobbies.  If you play golf, for example, consider how much you’ve improved since the first time you picked up a club. 

3.  Practice in public.  Before you have a crucial conversation with a colleague, give an important presentation or make a client pitch,  be vulnerable and ask for advice or feedback from people you trust. 

This is a light touch on a very powerful and yet, elegantly simple concept.  For anyone who aspires to be a better leader, I daresay that there is nothing more important than developing a growth mindset.  Here’s how to learn more about Carol Dweck’s work:

Take this quiz from Carol Dweck’s website to determine your own mindset.

Watch Dweck’s TED Talk

Buy her book

Starla Sireno is an NYC-based Executive Leadership Coach. She has helped develop leaders in some of the most recognized organizations ranging from Fortune 500 to fast-growth technology companies. Starla has partnered with more than 500 leaders in over 60 organizations around the world. Inquire how you can work with Starla or her team.

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