An Opinion Article by Marshall Officer
It’s 2021, and I’ve switched gears. Last year, I wrote a collection of articles called the ‘Training Series’. These articles covered a variety of training concepts and lifts, written for anyone - from the complete beginner through to the expert coach. These articles weren’t meant as the be-all and end-all of physical training - they were a general overview of some key areas of physical training, with hopefully enough information for someone to read and develop even a basic level of understanding about any one particular topic. I wrote them, as not only am I a coach who works closely with injured veterans and competitive powerlifters - but I have been lifting for years and I love it. It is something about which I am passionate, and I want to share that passion with anyone willing to listen. This year - I am writing about something else I am equally passionate about - leadership. My time in the military, as well as working in leadership positions ever since I left, exposed me to a huge range of leadership styles, techniques, and philosophies. I have seen the good, the bad, the ugly, and the dangerous. I want to share this with whoever is willing to listen, too.
Although this article is titled specifically for junior leaders, it has information that is applicable to anyone - regardless of whether or not they are in a leadership position. As a powerlifting coach, a lot of my working week is spent focussing on the physical. A powerlifter obviously has to be strong, and continue to get stronger, primarily through time spent in the gym working on their three main lifts. Despite this, I probably spend more time discussing the mental side of strength with my clients than the lifts themselves. No matter how strong someone is, or how technically proficient - without the right mindset, they will never accomplish anything. The same is true for junior leaders. You can have access to the best training in the world, the highest quality education, unlimited resources, and a wealth of experience from which to draw - if you can’t adopt the right mindset, all of those assets are useless. These days, one could argue that if you have access to the internet - you will always have access to the best training, high-quality education, almost unlimited resources, and a wealth of experience from which to draw at the touch of a button. If that is the case, everyone we speak to on a daily basis should be capable of almost anything, given enough time. From my experience, this is certainly not true. Why? Because, mindset matters.
Growth versus Fixed Mindset
If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you’ve probably seen me mention growth mindsets. I’ve already written an article on the mindset required to make progress in a training context, and realistically - I’m going to be repeating most of the same content, but within a different context to make it applicable to anyone aspiring to, or already within, a leadership position. I want to be very clear about this, though. I can’t hammer this point home enough: in everything, you should constantly strive to adopt a growth mindset over a fixed one. Just as a refresher, here is the definition for a growth mindset.
“...your intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait” - Carol Dweck
Professor Carol Dweck is an American psychologist who has specifically studied human mindset - and coined the terms “growth” and “fixed” mindsets. To paraphrase, a growth mindset is a belief that no matter your starting point - you can still learn, develop, and grow. Comparatively, a fixed mindset describes factors like intelligence and ability being set in stone, and can’t be changed over time. Despite the growth mindset seeming like the logical choice, all too often I see people defaulting to the fixed mindset. Although a growth mindset is easy to adopt when there is no pressure or situations in which we may feel inexperienced or uninformed - fixed mindsets have a habit of creeping in as we become more confident, more educated, or more experienced in a specific area. As people become more educated on a topic, their awareness of ‘what they don’t know’ can increase - but they also have a tendency to become fixed in what they think they already know. Whilst you may be more willing to admit all the things in which you aren’t an expert, you may also become more defensive about all the things you do know - creating a ‘fixed/growth mindset paradox’ where you’re willing to learn new information as long as it doesn’t conflict with everything you already believe. In a leadership context, I have seen many people go very quickly from someone who knows very little about a topic, to an “expert” who has nothing left to learn - purely from being given a leadership position in which they now have the authority to tell others what to do.
Recently, I read an article by Carol Dweck regarding how growth mindsets have become the popular thing for businesses and leaders to include in their never-ending, ever-changing repertoire of values. This article was specifically written to highlight that, although many people proclaim the benefits of a growth mindset - it is important that they recognise what that actually looks like in practice. One of the points Professor Dweck made in this article was that nobody can ever truly and completely have a growth mindset. We are always some mixture of the two, and as human beings, we are capable of having a growth mindset about some things, and a very fixed mindset on others. Whilst reading this article, I had what we can call a “fixed-mindset moment” - my initial reaction was very defensive. “How can it be a spectrum!?” I thought to myself, “you either have one, or you don’t! Who wrote this nonsense?”
Despite this initial reaction, after spending time thinking about what I had read - I realised that not only was the article right, it had also highlighted my very own ability to default to a fixed mindset when encountering information about which I had established beliefs. I also bit my tongue when I realised the article was written by the very person who had come up with growth and fixed mindsets - so, it is especially important to acknowledge that experts on any topic are worth listening to, especially when what they are saying doesn’t align with your preconceived notions about the topic.
Professor Dweck raises a very important point, emphasised by my own reaction to what she wrote. As I wrote above - growth mindsets are easy to adopt when the information in front of you doesn’t create a conflict. Growth mindsets are even more important when you are presented with conflicting information - as it is impossible to learn, change, grow, and by extension, lead when we consistently default to a fixed mindset in any situation that puts us on the defensive. To walk the path of the growth mindset requires constant re-examination of your own thought patterns and habits. It is a skill that requires practice - to acknowledge when you may be adopting a fixed mindset, when you may become defensive about a given topic or area, or where you feel yourself resisting change due to your own previous experiences. Recognising fixed cognitive behaviours is not a punitive practice - it is about recognising areas for growth. Practicing a growth mindset is an ongoing challenge to engage in self awareness, especially when your passion for a particular topic can be misinterpreted as productive. Passion is not always synonymous with progress - and recognising how blind passion may be obscuring your ability to learn is a difficult but ultimately rewarding process that is essential for every good leader.
Leadership and Growth Mindsets
On paper, leadership and growth mindsets are almost inherently at odds with each other. As a leader, you are expected to be capable of making decisions, committing to a direction, or demonstrating a level of expertise in a given area. Surely, as an expert, I must have nothing left to learn on the topic? Surely, as a leader, the way I do things must be the right way? Surely, my decisions must be without fault? And surely, admitting that I don’t know, that I am wrong, or that I committed to the wrong thing, would be a weakness and I would no longer deserve to lead?
This is the mentality I have often seen in both junior and senior leaders, not only in the military but in business and the strength sports industry of which I am now a part. For a leader to adopt a growth mindset - they need to be able to admit they still have more to learn, their way is not necessarily the right way, and certainly not the only way, and that their decisions may not always be the best ones. This is, of course, the case for every leader, no matter who you are. You might be the newest manager of your McDonalds outlet, or the re-elected leader of a country. Regardless of seniority, age, experience, or expertise - you are still only human. You can’t possibly know everything there is to know about any subject, even if you know most of it. Chances are, you probably don’t even know 10% - and being able to admit this is the first step in being able to learn new methods, practices, or information. As time goes on, new information is constantly becoming available. We live in a day and age where new information is accessible at the touch of a button, and as a leader, you have a responsibility to stay up to date with as much new and conflicting information as you possibly can. It is one of the primary roles for leaders in the 21st Century - to be capable of accessing and assessing new information relevant to your area of responsibility. You must weigh it against what you have previously learned and experienced. You absolutely must not dismiss it immediately no matter how conflicting it may be, and you must use this newfound knowledge base to lead more effectively.
Following on from this, the longer you spend in a particular field - the more dated your personal knowledge on the subject becomes. The longer you spend doing what works for you, or your business, the less time you spend trying new methods. Of course, if what you are doing is working for you and your business, it is important to maximise that success. This should not come at the cost of flexibility, or the ability to adapt. Many businesses had very successful methods until a global pandemic struck - and suddenly their methods became useless, and their inability to acknowledge new or different approaches to these challenges inevitably led to failure. As a leader, it is your responsibility to listen when those you lead come to you with new solutions to challenges, regardless of their level of experience in the given area. The newest team members, by their very nature, will have the freshest perspectives. These people are one of your most valuable resources. They will see opportunities where others will only see inconveniences, they will see advantages where others see complications, and they will see possibilities where others only see extra work. It is these people that can give you an edge - and a leader with a growth mindset will not dismiss them.
Finally, a leader with a growth mindset is one that understands that they make mistakes. Not every decision is a good one - that is a fact of life. Whether the information that decision was based on was incomplete or flawed, or the decision-maker was fatigued, distracted, under pressure, feeling defensive, or out of their depth - everyone makes mistakes. First and foremost, a leader with a growth mindset owns their mistakes. Vulnerability is never a weakness - and a leader that can admit when they have been wrong, and is willing to learn how to correct their mistakes or do a better job the next time, is a leader that will be far more successful, resilient, and supported by their team in the long run. As a leader with a growth mindset, you must not be afraid of making mistakes. Any decision will always be better than no decision. However, every decision must be made with the possibility of error in mind. You must be able to admit when your decision was flawed, you must be able to honestly investigate why it was not the best decision, and you must be able to put a plan in place to ensure that mistake does not happen again. A leader with a growth mindset must have a high level of self-awareness, as well as the ability to take responsibility for their actions. This is not easy, but it is essential to success.
A Motivated Leader
My final thoughts on the mentality of leadership are about motivation. Before all else, a leader must be motivated by results. It is a leader’s job, after all, to facilitate their team’s success. A leader who is not results-focused is a leader without a goal. They are directionless, and therefore doomed to fail. As a leader, you must understand completely what you are trying to achieve. You must be capable of setting goals, making a plan, understanding how each of your team will contribute most effectively to this plan, explaining these roles to your team in a meaningful way, and finally, facilitating achievement. Everything you do must somehow contribute to the accomplishment of the goals set by yourself, or by further up the leadership chain. A company that has a group of employees all doing what they love, but fails to make a profit, is a company that will undoubtedly fail. It is not the leader’s job to stop team members from doing what they love, as a team member who enjoys what they do is always going to be more productive than one that doesn’t. It is a leader’s job to ensure that their team is aligned with their goal, so that doing what they love produces the results required for success. As a leader, you must be able to recognise what this looks like. You must be able to understand the goal-setting process. You must be motivated by results.
With the right mindset, you can accomplish anything. Although this sounds more like a motivational quote than a scientific fact - I can certainly tell you from my own personal experience that in order to achieve something, you have to first believe it is possible. Belief begins in your brain, and is reinforced by your body. As an example, if I want to squat over 200kg, I have to first believe it is possible. After that, I have to get in the gym with a plan - and put the work in day after day. The more consistent I am, the more time I spend putting my plan into practice, the more confident I will become - and the more I will reinforce the belief that my goal is possible. As a leader, you need to understand what having a growth mindset looks like, and then practice applying it in every situation you possibly can. The more you practice having a growth mindset in easy situations - the more likely you will be able to employ it in harder situations, where you are under pressure, faced with conflict, or being challenged. Some people say perfect practice makes perfect. But unless you are already perfect, how can you possibly practice perfectly? Practice with the intent of a growth mindset becoming your norm - in every situation. Employ mindset with a purpose - set goals and be results-focused. Own your mistakes, acknowledge fresh perspectives, and remind yourself that you don’t know everything and you want to learn more. Start within your mind, and reinforce it daily.
Train Smart. Train Hard.
Anvil Training and Development is a group of Australian veterans who care about the physical and mental health of veterans and emergency service workers. We’re passionate about ongoing education and working with others to implement positive change.
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(Article Edited, Proof Read, and Fact-Checked by Charlotte Officer)
VES Mental Health Resources: https://anviltd.com/pages/ves-australian-mental-health-resources