Leadership Mindsets

A mindset is a way of thinking.  It’s a place where our beliefs, thoughts and behaviors intersect to form attitudes and frame our actions. We all have mindsets.  They influence the way we act, our ability to make decisions and, according to some psychologists, our potential. 

As I started in my first superintendent position, someone I considered a mentor gave me some great advice.  It went something like this–figure out what you stand for and make sure all your actions align with that.  It took me a while to understand why that was important, but when I did, it made a lot of sense.

There’s so much coming at us as leaders–so many things that can influence our actions–that it is easy to be diverted. Even the pressure from other people about what they believe is the “right” answer, or the “right” decision can be immense at times.  However, it’s within our deeply-rooted beliefs that we can approach situations objectively, consistently and with conviction.

When I finally understood what my friend meant, I was pretty sure that what I stood for was that everyone–students and adults–could achieve.  (That was probably spurred on by my 5th grade music teacher who said I’d never be a real musician.) But as simple as this belief is, anyone who has spent much time in a school can likely recall other situations when it seemed the system had given up on a student.  

“This kid is never going to make it,” or, “It would be better if this student were put in special education.” The first time I encountered this as a principal, I remember thinking, “Sure, this student is going to have a tough time, but their potential isn’t determined by their performance right now.”  If that were the case, a lot of us would never have learned to ride a bike because our parents would have thrown in the towel the first time we fell over.

Leadership Mindset #1 – Growth Mindset

After being given that advice and recalling experiences I had as a teacher and principal, I began to rely on my belief that everyone has potential to keep me grounded whenever I was faced with a difficult situation.  As time passed, it became easier and easier to apply that “growth mindset” to situations involving students as well as staff. And it helped me be more consistent in my response to most situations involving the students I served or the staff I supported.

But there are other mindsets that I believe help to build trust, culture, and motivate stakeholders.

Leadership Mindset #2 – Systems Mindset

A “systems mindset” is a belief that everything is connected.  For organizations, attention to systems can ensure that the mission, goals, policies, roles and divisions work harmoniously, result in equitable outcomes, motivate stakeholders, and build cohesiveness. The risk for not having a systems mindset is that change can be implemented haphazardly or in a piecemeal manner.

Leadership Mindset #3 – Entrepreneurial Mindset

An “entrepreneurial mindset” is one in which creativity, taking risks, and continuous problem-solving are identified as values.  However, the systems, practices and policies in most organizations are not designed to encourage entrepreneurialism. In schools, most of the work is prescribed by local, state and federal laws or mandates.  There is little incentive to create and take risks, and problem-solving is usually a prescribed process driven externally.

So what are your mindsets?

As implied, the leadership mindsets I described–growth, systems and entrepreneurial–are the ones that work for me.  In fact, I didn’t come to these immediately.  Actually, it’s been more like focusing a lens.  Each experience has helped me to arrive at these three and, who knows, maybe I’ll find another.

The point however, as sparked by the advice I received more than a decade ago, is that knowing what your beliefs are, and being willing to continually reflect on those beliefs, is essential to effective leadership.

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