What is your Mindset?

HBS’ mission is to help you become leaders who make a difference in the world. In pursuit of our mission we have very high standards and aspirations for you which require your best self in the effort. The knowledge and skills we work together to develop include: (1) basic skills, techniques and frameworks to critically think about the range of problems and opportunities business presents, (2) knowledge about yourself and how to begin the journey to become the best leader you can be, (3) ways to think about the moral, ethical, and wider societal issues leaders must address, (4) how to lead, manage and operate organizations from earliest startup to largest enterprise, and (5) field work to experience up close and personally the concepts we cover in the classroom. There is more of course than these five categories including the people we meet, the experiences we have outside the classroom and the chance to meet and hear from a wide range of visitors to our campus – an exciting, inspiring, challenging and profoundly rewarding and even transformative experience at its best.

I have often thought about why people of seemingly equal potential have such different outcomes at HBS given our rich blend and proven approach. At an even broader level, why do people with seemingly more potential struggle or even fail to achieve their potential? A glimmer of an answer dawned on me as I was giving a talk to students in Professor Garvin’s General Management Processes and Action class about the large organization CEO job. In the extensive and intense Q+A segment where students were probing very deeply on the “how” questions, I consistently found myself giving a three element answer that included the people who were involved, the process design and somewhat surprisingly to me the mindset the CEO brought to the task at hand. I realized that in my experience these mindset elements of the CEO job were of fundamental importance in determining success. Did the CEO see the job as protecting and operating or trying to get better every day? Did the CEO see the world as profoundly dangerous with risk taking a fool’s mission, or did the CEO know viscerally that enterprise growth and improvement were imperative and could only happen if risks were embraced? These risks might even put his or her job on the line! Was the board seen as a group of outsiders with little to add and basically just overseers or a group rich in diverse and important experience who were partners in achieving excellence? The list goes on, but you get the idea.

As luck would have it, shortly thereafter in the New York Times book review section I read a summary of a book by Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford on this very subject and was struck by the power of mindset in life. Dr. Dweck posits two basic types of mindsets: one is fixed and the other has a growth orientation. This mindset distinction in her work seems to be most important at times of transition like going to HBS and launching into the world of work after graduation. The fixed mindset supposes development is hard and leads to avoiding challenges, that effort cannot overcome obstacles and feedback is not useful because personal change is not really possible. The growth mindset says intelligence can be developed and results in mindsets that are more optimistic and risk tolerant or even risk seeking, e.g. embrace challenges, seek feedback, find lessons and inspiration in the success and experience of others. The fixed mindset confirms a deterministic view of the world while the growth mindset helps achieve ever higher levels of achievement.

So, what does all this mean for you? First, it suggests you do an honest inventory of your mindset. Are you someone who is very sure you know what you need to know, are a fully or nearly fully evolved person and have little to learn from others? Are you someone who is deterministic and feels there is little you can do to grow, learn and evolve and you have a fixed set of skills that hopefully will see you through? Or are you the more optimistic and open type who has the growth mindset? My practitioner experience tells me that life tends to move you away from the growth mindset and more into the protective and static view that is focused on defending and avoiding much more than seeking and risking. Do not let this too prevalent tendency to become static and defensive overtake you. Be confident in yourself but humble about what you have to learn. Be a leader who is self-aware but knows leadership development never stops and requires honest and constructive feedback. Finally, be willing and even seek to take the well-considered risks inherent in all new experiences which could be at first uncomfortable but ultimately are the best way to grow at the personal or enterprise level. Have a great summer.