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Growth Mindset and Leadership — Why we need a combination of both

Nowadays you don’t manage people anymore, you lead people. You can manage processes but not people. This is still new for classical managers, but crystal clear in innovative, fast moving modern companies.

I once coached a manager who worked in the manufacturing industry for years. Then he started a new job in a tech company. It was a new world for him. Leadership instead of management was easy for him to get, because he tended to go in that direction anyway. But still, he had difficulties finding his place in this fast-moving environment. He thought things through and had bad feelings, when something needed to change and when his tried-and-true approaches weren’t working. “This is my style of leading” he then said.

So we worked on becoming more flexible in his ways of dealing with (new) situations. It was hard work. And it needed to be done. His team expected it, and his own manager had said it was crucial. In the end he was able to adapt step by step. Slowly, wondering, but improving. For example, we practiced thinking in opportunities, getting viable solutions a chance and not only his preferred one. It took a while for him to really get and understand what a flexible mindset is good for. And it took him even longer to experience this new way of thinking and behaving. In the end, he became a different person — and happy about it. But it was super challenging for him, intense and really personal.

It is all about finding good practices, not best practices. Because every new situation can be different and you are able to adjust, improve and develop. Leadership needs to be open minded and flexible to overcome standard procedures

We are living in a time when technology and working processes change a lot. Actually, they change all the time. Being able to adapt to these ongoing changes and challenges means you are flexible in finding new, viable ways of dealing with situations and requirements. A growth mindset has its foundation as a lifelong learning requirement. New challenges are new opportunities for development, improvement and learning.

With a growth mindset you don’t think you know it all. Instead you know that you can learn and experience, and that you are on a learning journey for your whole life and not stuck in “I-know-it-all” land (otherwise known as the “fixed” mindset). With a growth mindset you are open and willing to learn from others and not too proud to admit when you don’t know something.

A growth mindset is a set of assumptions and beliefs that are not fixed but instead open for new input and inspiration for development, to embrace a lifelong journey of learning. A growth mindset doesn’t process in fixed truths but more in viable options and possibilities. (Schnell 2017)

The role of a leader has changed, too. It used to be that the team served the manager, in a relatively straightforward relationship and according to a pretty predictable plan. Today, especially in knowledge-based fields, leadership is more about enabling, empowering and guiding people to develop, perform, and contribute to the company’s mission. As a modern leader, it’s important to give direction and help the team.

Missions change, roadmaps change, tasks change, and even organizational structures change all time. Being able to understand and guide your team through these changing circumstances is a challenging job. You have to stay flexible and ready to adapt. You have to grow and to learn on the job, too — all the time. In this context, a growth mindset is THE ESSENTIAL aspect for a successful leader.

Fortunately, I believe that leaders in general are getting better at this. But this shift is mostly happening in the startup world. The bigger challenge will be to broaden this way of leading in traditional companies as well — because they have to adapt as well.

The sooner the better, that’s for sure. Imagine a company whose approach to leadership stays pretty much the same over the next ten years (“because it worked in the past”). I don’t think this company will exist in ten years. The shift is more dramatic than the old giants know and think. Young talents expect good leadership, innovative approaches, and meaningful interpretations of their work. They will not apply to companies where you have to fight for modern work expectations, like having flexible schedules, impactful decisions or self-chosen development goals.

I want to close with a wish for leaders in traditional companies: Don’t be shy about learning from companies with way less experience than you have in your field. Experience what they do differently, experience how they approach challenges. Don’t be a peacock; be brave, be open. Allow yourself to be curious, to be a newbie in that field (no matter how long you’ve actually worked in it). It will not only change your way of working, it will change the way everyone around you can work.

Originally published at on June 22, 2017.