For some time now, I’ve been talking about leadership mindsets, which I’ve defined as the mental attitude you bring to the actions you take. Said differently, mindsets are a way of thinking, shaped by attitudes and opinions, that guide and influence our behavior. Based on our research and work with clients across the globe, we’ve coalesced around four leadership mindsets: growth mindset, inclusive mindset, agile mindset, and enterprise mindset. At first glance, it might appear that one of the most pressing mindsets of our time, the innovative mindset, is a big “miss” in this group of four. But as we unpack each of these mindsets, the truth is that each drives a larger agenda of innovation.
Let’s take a look at them and how they connect to innovation:
A growth mindset is the belief that skills and behaviors can be cultivated through effort. With this mindset, challenges, obstacles, and feedback become opportunities to grow and learn. Elemental to innovation is that willingness to see failures not as setbacks but as opportunities to grow. Failures turned into successes exist all around us. Even something as simple as the lubricant WD40 got its name because it was the fortieth attempt to perfect what household product? Perhaps more spectacularly and well known is the failure that was Apple. While a consumer electronics icon today, Apple’s road to success was paved with many ups and downs. Steve Jobs had some colossal fails, including getting ousted as CEO. Jobs channeled that failure into renewed energy, and today Apple is known as one of the most technologically advanced organizations on the planet. In the embodiment of a growth mindset, Jobs said in the book The Journey Is the Reward by Jeffrey Young, “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.”
Innovative leaders continue to chip and hack away at solutions using the information they glean from their setbacks as a way to spur innovation – even if it takes 40 tries! They recognize that failure is part of the process. What’s more, innovative leaders have a higher tolerance for failure among the people they lead – knowing that setbacks create that space for further growth. For a leader with a growth mindset, obstacles and setbacks are not byproducts of innovation: They are drivers of it.
An inclusive mindset is the belief that contribution and performance are unleashed in a diverse and inclusive environment. When a leader has an inclusive mindset, they see differences in how others think and behave as advantages. They recognize that sameness breeds smallness and consistently invites diversity. A leader with an inclusive mindset seeks alternate perspectives thereby expanding the view of what is possible. Inclusivity opens the door to new ideas – it creates growth and expansion. It invites what’s different and innovative.
Inclusive leaders create psychological safety. When psychological safety is present, individuals feel comfortable surfacing ideas – including those that may be out of the ordinary. When an inclusive leader creates an environment of psychological safety, they show that ideas are valued, even if they are not chosen, which increases the likelihood that individuals will surface innovative ideas again in the future.
But inclusivity is more than just a feel-good notion. Its impact, particularly on innovation, is very real. A 2018 study released by North Carolina State University demonstrated a business case for diversity; Professor Richard War demonstrated a strong correlation between diversity and innovation. War assessed organizations based on nine positive diversity requirements and found that companies that fulfilled all nine positive diversity requirements announced, on average, two extra products a year.
An agile mindset is the belief that success in a complex and volatile world requires flexibility adaptation, innovation, and resilience. With this mindset, we fail fast and achieve success by being nimble in the way we think and act. Leaders have access to massive amounts of information at their fingertips. An agile leader is able to take in, filter, and assimilate information quickly. They assess their decisions frequently, and adapt when necessary, at a pace that reflects the speed of business.
An agile leader adapts quickly and tries new approaches. They come up with fast, creative responses and implement the new methods. This doesn’t mean that they lack discipline or vision. Agile leaders are clear on their final destination and their desired goals; they are simply more open to the fact that the path to those goals may take some unexpected twists and turns.
In fact, research conducted by GP Strategies last year asked leaders what mindset they needed to be successful in the future. Leaders across all levels prioritized openness and adaptability, followed by discipline. While these three mindsets might initially seem contradictory (how can you be disciplined if you are adapting?), they perfectly describe an agile leader. Agile leaders have a goal and are disciplined about reaching it; they just happen to have an eraser at the end of their pencil so they can redraw the plan to reach the goal as necessary.
An enterprise mindset is the belief that success is maximized when we prioritize the needs of the larger organization. With this mindset, all decisions in a team or business unit are made for the greater good of the company. A leader with an enterprise mindset reaches across the organization – breaking down barriers and making decisions for the greater good. When those barriers come down, greater organization–wide collaboration and innovation are possible.
A leader with an enterprise mindset also reads the external environment, spotting or, better yet, anticipating trends. Reading the external environment can allow a leader to anticipate change and get ahead of it. They can choose being innovative over becoming obsolete. Consider the telltale stories of Blockbuster whose failure to innovate in the home movie-watching business is legendary. Or Kodak, the pioneer of photography, whose failure to lean into the digital space lost them their leadership in the industry. By removing internal and external barriers in service of the greater organizational good, a leader with an enterprise mindset is clearing a path to doing things differently and drawing in a diversity of perspectives.
Leaders often wrestle with what it means to have a mindset of innovation. But in looking for a singular way to “program” the mind of an innovative leader, we’re missing the point. It is the combination of these four key mindsets – growth, inclusive, agile, and enterprise – that create the conditions in leaders’ attitudes, and then in their behaviors, for innovation to flourish.
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