Are the qualities of leaders carved in stone, are they ‘fixed’? Are leaders selected based on the traits that they demonstrate and that these traits are fixed? Are leaders born not made?

There is an alternative viewpoint, that leadership qualities and traits are things that can be cultivated through effort, strategies, and help from others.

In her book, Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential, Dr Carol Dweck talks about how a belief that your qualities are carved in stone leads to certain thoughts and actions, and a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road.

Do you have Fixed Mindset or a Growth Mindset?

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much
  2. You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are
  3. No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit
  4. You can always substantially change how intelligent you are
  5. You are a certain kind of person, and there is not much that can be done to really change that
  6. No matter what kind of person you are, you can always change substantially
  7. You can do things differently, but the important parts of who you are can’t be changed
  8. You can always change basic things about the kind of person you are.

Questions 1, 2, 5 & 7 are the fixed mindset questions. Questions 3, 4, 6 & 8 reflect the growth mindset. Which mindset did you agree with more? You can be a mixture, but most people lean toward one or the other. (Ref. Dr C Dweck)

What is a Fixed and Growth Mindset?

In a fixed mindset, people believe their qualities are fixed traits and therefore cannot change. These people document their intelligence and talents rather than working to develop and improve them. They also believe that talent alone leads to success, and effort is not required.

Alternatively, in a growth mindset, people have an underlying belief that their learning and intelligence can grow with time and experience. When people believe they can get smarter, they realise that their effort has an effect on their success, so they put in extra time, leading to higher achievement.

Mindset paths

Mindset and Leadership

If leaders in an organisation have a fixed mindset, this can create a culture where leaders are reluctant to admit and correct their deficiencies. As they are reluctant to admit that they are deficient, it is likely that they will be unwilling to go on any developmental programme.

Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, studied companies that had made the leap to greatness. What distinguished these companies from others? One factor was the type of leader, they were found to be self-effacing people who constantly asked questions and had the ability to confront difficult questions. They have the growth mindset. They believe in human development. They’re not constantly trying to prove they are better than others, they don’t undermine others to feel powerful. Instead they are constantly trying to improve. They surround themselves with the most able people they can find, they look at their own mistakes and deficiencies and ask what skills they and the company need in the future. And, because of this, they can move forward with confidence that’s grounded in the facts, not built on fantasies about their talent.

Fixed-mindset leaders live in a world where some people are superior, and some are inferior. They must repeatedly affirm that they are superior, and the organisation is a platform for this. Collins talks about fixed-mindset leaders as being typically concerned with their “reputation for personal greatness” – so much so they that they often set the company up to fail when their regime ends. As Collins puts it, “after all, what better testament to your own personal greatness than that the place falls apart after you leave?” Enron being an example of the failure to look at their own deficiencies.

A study into company mindset by gathering responses from employees to statements (either fixed or growth mindset), showed that people who work in growth-mindset organisations have far more trust in their organisation and a much greater sense of empowerment, ownership, and commitment. Those who worked in a fixed mindset company expressed greater interest in leaving their company for another.

Are you a fixed-mindset or growth-mindset leader?

Do you feel people are judging you or are they helping you to develop?

Are there ways you can create more learning experiences for yourself?

How do you act towards others in your workplace?

Are you a fixed-mindset leader, focused on power more than your employees’ well-being?

Do you ever try and hold back high-performing employees because they threaten you?

Leadership Development

If leaders judge employees as either competent or incompetent (fixed mindset), they will look for existing talent and not believe in personal change and therefore do little to develop their staff. And when employees do improve, they may fail to take notice, remaining stuck in their initial impression. What’s more they are far less likely to seek or accept critical feedback from their employees. Why bother to coach employees if they can’t change and why get feedback from them if you can’t change?

Leaders with a growth-mindset think its nice to have talent but this is just the starting point. These leaders are more committed to their employee’s development and their own.

What does it all mean?

Good news! The growth mindset can be taught.

It means that our best bet is not simply to recruit the most talented leaders and turn them loose, but to look for leaders who embody a growth mindset, a zest for learning, an openness to giving and receiving feedback and an ability to confront and surmount obstacles.

It also means that we need to train leaders and employees to believe in growth, in addition to training them in specifics of effective communication and mentoring.

It means creating a growth mindset environment in which people can thrive. This involves:

  • Presenting skills as learnable
  • Conveying that the organisation values learning and perseverance, not just ready-made genius or talent
  • Giving feedback in a way that promotes learning and future success
  • Presenting leaders as resources for learning
  • Creating an organisation that prizes the development of ability- and watch the leaders emerge

Without a belief in human development, many leadership programmes become exercises of limited value. We need to create a “culture of development” rather than a “culture of genius”.

Steps you can take to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset

  1. Consider ways you can help your employees develop their skills on the job
  2. Think about how you can start seeing and treating your employees as your collaborators, as a team
  3. How can you support and provide feedback to your employees?
  4. Create a culture of self-examination, open communication, and teamwork
  5. Set up the workplace to promote groupthink. Create ways to foster alternative views and constructive criticism
  6. Set goals for growth
  7. Ask yourself ‘what are the opportunities for learning and growth today? For myself? For the people around me?’


Dr. C S Dweck (2017) Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential

Jim Collins (2001) From Good to Great

Louis Gerstner (2003) Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?