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How to become a leader, even if you’re average

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

My friend Joanne recently got promoted to a very senior leadership role in her organization. In fact, this is her third promotion in just a few years. Some of our peers were surprised by her rapid rise up the corporate ladder. Why? Well, at university, Joanne's progress and results were fairly average. Yes, she worked hard, but she was never perceived as a rising star.

However, I am not surprised by her success. And this is why: I have always believed that leaders are made not born. This perspective is supported by the research findings of a book I read recently called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

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According to the author, Carol Dweck, even great thought leaders like Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary children. So does that mean that it is possible for any of us to become the next Einstein? Not exactly. However, although we are all born with certain skills, capabilities and attributes, Ms. Dweck says that "a person's true potential is unknown; it's impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training."

So, what really differentiates people like my friend Joanne from the rest of the pack? According to Ms. Dweck, it is their mindset, which is a series of beliefs that drives behaviour. These beliefs can either enable or limit our success. Leaders like Joanne have a "growth" mindset, meaning that they believe their qualities, abilities, and characteristics can change. When faced with challenges, they embrace them and see them as an opportunity to grow.

In contrast, leaders with a "fixed" mindset believe that each of us is born with certain immutable skills and abilities. Hence, these leaders tend to avoid challenges as they could reveal a lack of skills. When they encounter a setback, they blame others rather than seeing failure as an opportunity to develop and progress.

Many years ago, I worked for a chief executive officer who epitomized the growth mindset. He viewed talent as a starting point for success and strongly encouraged continuous improvement and growth in the organization.

Although he was nearing retirement, he never stopped reading, learning and improving himself. His growth mindset permeated throughout the organization. Yes, the company hired smart people, but why was it constantly No. 1 in the industry? Well, for one, the CEO encouraged personal growth and created a corporate culture that supported employee training, development and feedback – three strategies that help to create great performance.

Similarly, Lou Gerstner, CEO of IBM from 1993 to 2002, leveraged a growth mindset to turn his organization around. When he accepted his role, the organization was in trouble. It was riddled with fixed mindset leaders. These individuals were motivated by ego, power and the desire for control. They were reluctant to acknowledge their deficiencies, and the business started to suffer.

Mr. Gerstner, as he describes in his book, Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?, scorned his predecessors who believed they were superior to both their colleagues and clients. Like other growth mindset leaders, Mr. Gerstner built a corporate culture that valued teamwork, accountability and service excellence. It was this attitude and approach that helped him to transform IBM.

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So, if leaders with a growth mindset tend to build teams and organizations that thrive, what is the impact of fixed mindset leaders? Well, since they often believe they are inherently superior to others, they tend to alienate their team.

Have you had a leader who criticized you, micromanaged you, or mistreated you? This leader likely had a fixed mindset. As a result of this constant criticism, did you become disengaged or choose to play it safe? This is often the case, and it's never good for business.

Now, consider your own beliefs. Do you tend to avoid feedback or resist personal change? If so, you are likely operating from a fixed mindset.

Conversely, are you someone who welcomes coaching and feedback? Do you leverage the advice of others to help you grow and improve your skills? If so, you likely have a growth mindset.

Regardless of where you are today, the good news is that, with awareness, a growth mindset can be developed. With a targeted development plan, a strong coach or mentor, and a tenacious drive to improve, anything is possible.

Vanessa Judelman is the president of Mosaic People Development (@MosaicPD), a leadership and executive development firm.

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