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Why Some Leaders Are More Successful Than Others: The Study of Fixed and Growth Mindsets

Effective leaders who lead their companies to greatness are not necessarily the charismatic types who believe in their own talent and ability, but those who constantly evaluate their performance, believe in human development and strive to improve.  They are the people who believe in growth and are open to challenging their own thinking by asking uncomfortable questions in order to develop.  They do not give up in the face of failure or blame outside factors for poor performance and hide their own mistakes, but instead try harder to overcome their difficulties and take on challenges.  As in learning, where a closed mind or reliance on one’s ability (fixed mindset[1]) to succeed can have detrimental impact on progress and achievement, individuals with a positive attitude (growth mindset[2]) see setbacks as a natural part of learning and development, and capitalize on their mistakes in order to improve.

According to Dweck[3], successful leaders “are not constantly trying to prove they’re better than others. (...) Instead, they are constantly trying to improve. They surround themselves with the most able people they can find, they look squarely at their own mistakes and deficiencies, and they ask frankly what skills they and the company will need in the future.”

People are often conditioned by educational systems, like the one in the UK, to believe that natural ability and talent bring success (fixed mindset) and therefore effort (growth mindset) can be undervalued.  Where educational systems in some countries put greater emphases on effort rather than on ability, for example Singapore, China, Korea, Honk Kong, this works in synergy with the idea of a ‘growth mindset’, where individuals (learners and employees) believe that effort can bring the desired results, and this belief motivates them to succeed in problem solving and building learning capacity for life. 

When studying some of the world’s greatest leaders, W. Bennnis[4] found that none of them set out to become leaders, instead they worked hard and did what they loved best with enthusiasm and determination.  What’s more important, they had no desire in ‘proving themselves’ in any way, thus being open to challenges and growth.  With hindsight, the collapse of some companies and the firm belief of many management consultancies in the “talent mind-set” being necessary for success resulted in a culture which worshiped talent itself at the expense of self-improvement and development.  As super talented individuals believed in their innate ability for continued success, dismissing any need for self-improvement, often for the fear of exposing their deficiencies, this attitude forced those talented individuals into a ‘fixed mindset’.   Dweck asserts that as ‘fixed mindsets’ cannot tolerate flaws, their inability to self-correct and admit errors can have a disastrous impact on any company development.

For organisations to grow, their leaders must constantly challenge the status quo, rather than demonstrate satisfaction from own ends already achieved.  Successful leadership is about believing in human development and constant re-evaluation.  Great leaders don’t try to prove than they’re better than others; instead they try to improve through self-evaluation and by learning from past mistakes.  This ‘growth mindset’ attitude means that effective leaders are able to alter their strategies to suit changing conditions and to re-asses where their business is and identify where it needs to get.

Individuals with a growth mindset just keep on learning.


[1] Fixed mindset is defined as a strong belief in one’s ability (intelligence) as basis for success, rather than effort, where individuals tend to hide their mistakes and deficiencies, and react negatively to setbacks.

[2] Growth mindset is based on effort and is focused on learning and achievement.

[3] Dweck, C. (2012).Mindset: how you can fulfil you potential. UK: Robinson

[4] Bennis, W. (2003). On Becoming Leader. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing

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