Leaders need to combine experience and good decision-making with a proactive approach to continuous learning. They strive to appear as active learners who embody the ‘Growth Mindset’ described by Carol Dweck. But it is easy to fall into the trap of holding too closely to these positions and become constrained by what you ‘know’ to be the way to do things. What you know can quickly kill the curiosity about alternate views, approaches and perspectives that are at the heart of truly breakthrough thinking needed to constantly refresh a sustainable growth mindset. Knowing can be the single most powerful derailer of ambition – and it is often unspoken and unrecognised knowledge that holds back curiosity needed to achieve bold ambition.
Dweck’s 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success has deservedly had a significant impact in boardrooms around the world. Her central premise is that constant practise of flexible, adaptable thinking, relishing challenges as learning opportunities and being always curious lie at the heart of vibrant and effective leadership in all walks of life. Many clients come to us to help develop a growth mindset and we have many approaches to exploring what this means for them. But the moment having a growth mindset becomes a goal in itself, its very power is undermined. A growth mindset is not a destination, but a journey. If it becomes ‘the way things are done here’, or a requirement or preferred characteristic it is in danger of becoming a ‘fixed’ attitude – the antithesis of growth. Successful leaders use breakthrough thinking to experiment, explore and commit to impossible goals and to constantly refresh a growth mindset. They tune into the assumptions they accept within themselves and their teams and are alert to emerging dogmas that limit curiosity, flexibility and growth. We see three common ‘knowledge traps’ that constrain leaders, limit breakthrough achievements and curtail ambition.
Leaders got where they are by being good at what they do. Whether it was sales, financial insights, customer service or product innovation, past experience has created a set of ‘Winning Moves’ that have served a leader well. They are not always immediately obvious to the individual or those around them, but are fundamental aspects of what they do and how they do it. However, today more than ever, what was successful in the past may no longer work as anticipated. Knowing how to win based on how you’ve won before can be a very dangerous mindset. One of our first interactions with leaders striving to achieve breakthrough performance is to help them identify and recognise their own winning moves. Its not about what is right or wrong – but recognising first that they are just a set of assumptions and that there are other possible routes, approaches and behaviours that could be more effective. Stepping away from the familiarity of what has worked and getting curious to what might work helps avoid this first knowledge trap.
Winning moves can quickly become codified at an organisational level too. ‘Best practice’ and ‘how we do things here,' are designed to share knowledge and replicate what’s worked. But they also have the effect of squashing curiosity. They become the fixed corporate mindset that seeks to avoid challenge and remain safe and predictable. They cut off opportunities to learn and to experiment and can cultivate binary cultures that designate ‘our way’ as good and any other way as bad. Competitiveness amplifies this. If a competitor tries something new the initial choice is often restricted to copying it or rejecting it. To unleash ambition leaders must remain flexible and hold best practice lightly. Yes, it can help to create consistency, but be clear that it is a product of the organisation’s context and all of the assumptions that entails. Cultivate and practise viewing that context from different perspectives; challenge it and see what can be learned by breaking some of those rules.
The final knowledge trap for leaders is their own identity. Knowing who you are, and proudly being true to yourself and your values at work is the foundation of authentic leadership. But this self-awareness can become its own constraint. The very identity of ‘leader’ can easily, and often unconsciously, slide into one of ‘I know.’ Even as they espouse a culture of active learning, leaders can operate from a position of I know. It shapes how they listen to their teams and make decisions. Always looking for how to apply what you know rather than really trying to learn and grow. Standing in ‘I know’ only ever delivers fixed thinking and reiterations of past winning moves. To proactively cultivate growth mindsets, leaders need to hold their own identity loosely and be prepared to put it at risk in service of exploration and experimentation. Saying ‘I don’t know, but I’m curious to find out’ can be the hardest thing for a leader to say. Yet in today’s rapidly evolving environment it can be the only responsible approach.
Endlessly cultivating curiosity, in yourself and in your teams, is critical to unleash ambition and be successful in bringing to life the impossible future you want to create. Breakthrough thinking constantly refreshes a growth mindset by challenging assumptions, revealing the power of context and always finding learning in breakdowns. What you know as a leader has little to offer - what you are willing to learn has everything.
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