In the Forum
Leadership: Mistakes, Mindset, and Character
People often have a hard time facing up to major mistakes and setbacks. I’ve been studying this process for 30 years, attempting to understand why some people have a particular problem with this. In my research, I’ve seen people pass up opportunities to correct their deficiencies—even when their future depended on it. Instead, they try to mask the deficiencies, lying about them or blaming others.
People who have the most difficulty facing up to shortcomings often share a mindset. They believe that their basic qualities—their competence, their worth—are carved in stone and that mistakes mean these qualities are inadequate. Thus, they believe that their reputations and self-regard rest on appearing flawless.
We can find people with this “fixed” mindset in the business world. In fact, it’s often called “CEO” disease, and several of our nation’s most powerful companies (including I.B.M., Xerox, and Enron) were at some point brought to the brink of ruin by leaders who created a culture of infallibility. We find it in the sports world, as well, with its widespread belief in natural talent. Michael Lewis in Moneyball tells the tale of Billy Beane, an extravagantly gifted athlete who was the star of his high school football, basketball, and baseball teams. However, when Beane reached the major leagues he was unable to tolerate less-than-perfect performance and the result was disastrous.
What’s the alternative? Who are the people who can acknowledge their weaknesses and face up to mistakes? They share a mindset as well. In a “growth” mindset, people believe that their most basic qualities can be cultivated and developed. Instead of wanting to appear perfect, they seek opportunities to learn and improve--to become more competent—even at the risk of exposing deficiencies.
Lou Gerstner who resuscitated I.B.M. and Anne Mulcahy who is reviving Xerox embody the growth mindset. They constantly looked candidly at themselves and their company, saw the truth in its often-discouraging complexity, learned, and took their company forward. In the sports world, Billy Beane realized that a baseball player’s mindset was as important as his talent. He is now the highly successful general manager of the Oakland A’s, a team that has amassed an impressive record on a shoestring budget. Michael Jordan, perhaps the most growth-oriented athlete who ever lived, tells of how he once tried to coast on his talent after returning to basketball. His team was promptly eliminated from the playoffs. Did he blame the referees, the team, or the coach? “You can’t leave and think you can come back and dominate this game,” he announced. “I will be physically and mentally prepared from now on.”
My colleagues and I saw the mindsets at work in a recent cognitive neuroscience study we conducted. Participants in this study performed a highly difficult task and received feedback as we recorded the electrical activity in their brain, particularly from those areas that reflected their pattern of attention. We found that participants in a fixed mindset paid attention only to information that told them whether they were correct or not. They paid little attention to information about how to rectify their mistakes. In contrast, those in a growth mindset paid attention to both information that told them whether they were right or wrong and information about how to remedy their errors. As a result, they performed significantly better the next time around.
In recent years, we’ve heard much talk of character. But what is it? In a fixed mindset, character is about being omniscient and infallible. In a growth mindset, though, character is about owning up to your mistakes, shortcomings, and ignorance-- and then doing something to correct them. We admire Abraham Lincoln not because he was perfect, but because, as Doris Kearns Goodwin points out, he confronted the complexity of the situations he faced, surrounded himself with people of conflicting opinions, and reached resolutions that allowed him to deftly lead the country through perilous times. He changed his mind often, sometimes about the most important issues of the day, like slavery. Yet we see this as his strength, not his weakness.
In my research, I study how mindsets develop in childhood and adolescence and how they affect young people’s school achievement, relationships, and character. I can tell you that our youth will not benefit from political, business, and sports figures who teach them that mistakes are to be denied, hidden, or blamed on others. How could that possibly foster their development and their readiness to be the leaders of tomorrow?