Self-Assessment: Are You a Leader By Nature or Nurture?

Your answer to this question and two others may determine your long-term success.


Dave is a CEO of an Internet startup that failed to get funding, and he’s got to find something else to do. But he’s so focused on his failure that he’s having a hard time seeing what talents and skills he could leverage. Something invisible but crucial is standing in his way — his mental model. Let me explain what I mean.

Carol Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford who studies why some people succeed and others fail. What she’s discovered : At a young age, people develop beliefs that organize their world and give meaning to their experiences. These mental models determine the goals we pursue and the ways we go about achieving them.

1. Fixed mind-set
Intelligence is static and leads to a desire to look smart and therefore a tendency to:

  • Avoid challenges
  • Give up easily when faced with an obstacle
  • See effort as fruitless or worse
  • Ignore useful negative criticism
  • Feel threatened by the success of others

As a result, may plateau early and achieve less than full potential

2. Growth mind-set
Intelligence can be developed and leads to a desire to learn and therefore a tendency to:

  • Embrace challenges
  • Persist in the face of setbacks
  • See effort as a path to mastery
  • Learn from criticism
  • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others

As a result, reach ever-higher levels of achievement

When someone like Dave, with a fixed mind-set, fails at something, they believe the situation is out of their control and nothing can be done.

They lose faith in their ability to perform. They shrink previous successes and inflate failures. They give up.

Those with a growth orientation do not see failure as an indictment of their capacity. For those folks, a problem is just an opportunity to learn new things. Their attention is on finding strategies for learning. When they blow it or meet an obstacle, they realize that they just haven’t found the right strategy yet. They dig in and make optimistic predictions: “The harder it gets, the harder I need to try. I need to remember what I already know about this. I’ll get this soon.”

Two questions can determine failure or success

These mind-sets can powerfully affect our career trajectories. One of Dweck’s research studies was with Chinese students in Hong Kong who were given the opportunity to learn English, which in the long run would increase their ability to get good jobs. The students with the fixed mind-set turned down the opportunity because they knew it was hard. But the students with the growth mind-set said, ” Sure, I’ll do it; e ven if I don’t do well, I’ll grow my capacity.”

She also discovered that extremely highly paid athletes with a fixed mind-set often don’t do well on a team. They decide they don’t need to practice because they are so good, and they flame out.

Want further proof that success comes from accepting that you will make mistakes and you have the ability to learn from them?

Would-be neurosurgeons were studied to determine who would succeed and who would fail. The researcher discovered that the answer came down to how they responded to the following two questions:

  1. Do you ever make mistakes?
  2. If so, what is the worst mistake you ever made?

Those who flunked out claimed never to make mistakes or attributed any error to things beyond their control. Successful neurosurgical students admitted to many mistakes and described what they had learned about avoiding them in the future.

Dweck’s research offers powerful evidence that when it comes to moving through the challenges of a job search and career change, we need a growth mind-set. When we see our minds as capable of learning and life as a chance to grow, then everything we do is grist for the mill. We don’t give up when we experience setbacks but learn what we can from the experience and begin again, wiser.

Your attention is focused on the question, ” How can I use the constraints and challenges I’m facing to grow my own capacity?”

Where do these orientations come from? It turns out that it has to do with whether you think intelligence is fixed — you’re born as smart as you’ll ever be — or changeable — you can get smarter throughout life. When provided with evidence that the brain can grow new pathways, fixed-oriented freshman college students on the verge of dropping out switched to a growth orientation and graduated.

What about you?

In working with hundreds of executives, I’ve found that many of us have a growth orientation in some of these attributes and not in others. Each person is different based on his early history. For instance, I’ve got no trouble with the first three or the last one. I’m still working on seeing mistakes as learning opportunities. There continues to be a voice of perfectionism inside me that panics when I find I’ve made an error, although it’s much softer than it used to be. And I still have trouble seeking out feedback because I’m afraid it will be negative. But I’m working on it! I’ve gotten much better at feeling the discomfort and asking for input anyway.

Looking at the list, is your mind-set a growth or fixed one? Which of these are easy? Difficult? Try to notice without beating yourself up. That just interferes with a growth mind-set because it reinforces the belief that you should know everything already.

After all, even know-it-alls don’t know it all. And accepting this premise is the key to success.