How the Right Leadership Mindset Can Pave the Way to Success

February 20, 2018 11:13 am

A best-selling author describes the seven leadership mindsets that distinguish the best leaders from the pack.

You need to be both smart and skilled to lead. But as you look around your organization, you may well find that the best leaders are not always the most technically gifted. If the best leaders are not the most technically competent, then what differentiates the very best from the merely very good? 

In the last five years, we have been researching some of the best leaders in business, education, the military, not-for-profit organizations, sports, and beyond to discover their X-factor. During this process, it soon became clear that the best leaders act differently because they think differently. And they all display the same thought biases. 

We can call this a mindset, although in practice, a mindset is no more than your thinking habits. As with any habit, we can acquire, change, or grow our mental habits with deliberate practice. We may not become a megastar, but even a little practice has a major effect on performance.

Our research has uncovered the seven mindsets of success:

High aspirations. Good leaders want to beat the budget and be excellent. For the very best leaders, having high aspirations reaches beyond excellence. They want to change things by finding new ways of working and competing. They meet former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s definition of leadership, which is to take people from where they are to where they have not been.

Courage. If you want to change, innovate, and lead, you need courage to break with the old way of doing things. You have to see risk as opportunity. Surprisingly, you can learn courage. Our work with the Royal Marines and British Fire Services showed how they build courage incrementally. What might look like courage to one person is just another day at the office for another. Slowly push your limits, and your ability to manage risk will grow.

Resilience. Research shows that the “best” do not always succeed. But the most successful leaders do not think in terms of failure. Instead, they think that they “have not succeeded … yet” and use every setback to learn and grow stronger. Crises are the moments of truth that make the best leaders and break others.

Optimism. The positive-psychology movement has produced plenty of evidence that being positive is good for your health and longevity. Optimism also is important in the best leaders, for who wants to work for a cynical pessimist? For leaders, optimism is not about “hoping” because, as we know, hope is not a strategy. Instead, optimism is about simple routines: looking to the future and not dwelling on the past; seeing opportunities, not problems; seeking to praise and not to criticize; giving constructive feedback, not negative feedback; and building on strengths and not on weaknesses.

Agency. The best leaders seem to build a reality-distortion field around themselves. They have absolute conviction that they can bend the world to their will. Most of us will be remembered not for our achievements but for our presence. An example that many may have experienced is the way in which a leader’s little cloud of gloom can spread like a major depression across teams. The best leaders learn to wear the mask of leadership—they become the leader people want to follow, not the leader people have to follow.

Collaboration. First-time managers have to make the shift from “How do I do this?” to “Who can do this?” In the days of command-and-control organizational structures, that was an easy question to answer—you told a team member to get on with the job. Today, many leaders do not command all the resources they need to succeed; they have to work with partners across and beyond their organizations. That means collaboration is the core 21st century leadership skill. It is about the art of influence and building networks of trust and support. Aligning agendas makes the organization you work for, work for you. 

Growth. The rules of survival and success keep on changing for everyone—from the frontline employee to the supervisor to the manager of managers to the CEO. Many leaders fail because they become prisoners of success—they learn a successful formula and stick to it. That’s fine as long as the context never changes, but the context is always changing. The best leaders are always learning, growing, and adapting. The growth is not random. They focus on building their strengths and then building a team around them to fill the gaps. As with the collaborative mindset, they know that leadership is no longer about lone heroes changing the world. It is a team sport.

Finally, there is the mindset that appears to come from the dark side:

Ruthlessness. The best leaders are selectively ruthless, and their ruthlessness comes from a complete focus on achieving their mission. They know that when you accept excuses, you accept failure. They also know that success depends on having the best team—they will move team members out quickly if that is required. Ultimately, the fortunes of the organization take precedence over those of the individual. But the best leaders are not psychopaths—they may be unreasonable about goals, but they are flexible about the means and will support the team in reaching its goals.

The best leaders are not always comfortable to work with. They know that the true currency of leadership is not popularity, which leads to compromise and weakness. The true currency is trust and respect, which lead to loyalty and performance. 

With patience and effort, anyone can build these habits of success.

Jo Owen is a best-selling and multi-award-winning leadership author, keynote speaker, and social entrepreneur, as well as a founder of eight charities. He wrote The Mindset of Success to help leaders unlock their potential and accelerate their careers by acquiring the seven key mindsets that lead to leadership success.

This article is adapted from The Mindset of Success by Jo Owen ©2017 and is reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd. 


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