I’ll admit it, way back in elementary school, I was the token “smart kid” at the lunch table. You know, the teacher’s pet, the one who always raises their hand with the right answer. If you’d asked others to describe me at age 6, the word “smart” would have been numero uno on the list of attributes. This helped me win most of my pleas for a new Barbie doll or that New Kids on the Block cassette tape. Admittedly, being the teacher’s pet did not bode as well in the popularity contest. But first-grade social status aside, could my goody two-shoes “label” have had a negative impact on my self-perception? I recently came across a study that had me wondering.Back in 2007, Stanford psychologists set out to learn whether theory of intelligence ultimately had an impact on students’ performance. As it turns out, the kids labeled "smart" weren't always the highest achievers in the long haul. In the study and in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, psychologist Carol Dweck explains that students who believed in their ability to grow outperformed students who believed their intelligence was inherent.
Dweck sums this up as the “fixed mindset” vs. the “growth mindset.” In short, a fixed mindset is the belief that traits are fixed or innate. A growth mindset suggests that traits or characteristics can be developed through effort or hard work. It’s the difference between believing you succeeded because of your smarts versus your effort. And it can go a long way. As Dweck’s studies suggest, students who reframe their mindset perform better because they’re more encouraged to put in the effort, and they believe they have power over their own destiny.
In our coaching and consulting work, we often find that leaders, and especially high-potential leaders, have a fixed mindset about the phenomenon of executive presence. It’s looked at as a “he has it or he doesn’t” element of leadership. We recently conducted extensive research that confirms that “EP” is actually defined by a set of distinct facets – 15 of them, to be exact.
In our pilot program to validate the model and our Bates Executive Presence Index (ExPI) assessment tool, a high-potential leader (we’ll call her Lisa) commented on her low score when it came to the facet of Authenticity – “I’m a technical leader… I’m good at number crunching, but I have never seen myself as someone who can tap into my personal life experiences to lead and emotionally engage people.” It struck us that Lisa had developed a seemingly fixed mindset. And perhaps, her mindset was creating somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy about her ability to lead others.
So if you’re a leader, or a high-potential leader looking to build executive presence and influence, how can you use a growth mindset help you develop and succeed?
1. Reframe black-and-white thinking about executive presence
Through our research, we’ve learned that the traits that make up executive presence aren’t inherent. You’re not born with Humility, Restraint, Practical Wisdom, or the ability to communicate Vision. These are elements of your unique leadership persona that are developed over time and shaped by your experiences. Regardless of your personality, introvert/extrovert status, or other preconceived notions, recognize that you have the ability to develop these qualities. It’s not all-or-nothing – most leaders fall into the grey area in demonstrating these qualities. Just because you might not consider yourself a particularly assertive leader, doesn’t mean you don’t have the capacity to exhibit assertiveness when the circumstances warrant it.
2. Seek out opportunities to build your influence and hone these abilities
In the case of Lisa, we learned that Lisa’s self-fulfilling prophecy was partially due to the fact that she didn’t take on a lot of projects that provided her the opportunity to let her Authenticity shine through. She was efficient and knew how to get things done, so she excelled at projects that required “hunkering down” but little opportunity to share a more personal side that would resonate with hearts and minds. Our advice was to actively seek out projects that required a different style of leadership. By stepping outside her comfort zone, Lisa could build her confidence in her own ability to let her veil down a bit.
3. Apply this concept to your own leadership approach
If you’re leading others, ask yourself - have you unknowingly developed a fixed mindset about your team’s abilities and strengths? While it may be hard to admit, it's human nature to mentally categorize others based on their perceived strengths. In her book, Dweck suggests that leaders with a growth mindset are more effective in coaching and developing their own employees, for obvious reasons. Take an honest look at your approach to helping your own team develop. Reframing this simple mindset may have a dramatic impact on your ability to help others grow, succeed and ultimately drive your business forward.