A learning attitude is essential for leadership development

Leading Learning Coert Visser
Effective leadership development requires a growth mindset and a focus on learning goals.

Recently I wrote a brief article about setting goals. In that article a comparison was made, among other things, between performance goals and learning goals. Performance goals are about results which have be achieved; learning goals are about knowledge and skills to be learned. In general, performance goals lead to the best results for task which are straightforward. In other words, when they are clear for the person who has to do them and when that person is competent for those tasks. Learning goals lead to the best results when tasks are complex and cannot be overseen completely and when they require further learning from the person. With this in mind it is not strange to assume that learning goals are more relevant for leadership development than performance goals. 

The role of mindset in leadership development

This thought, with several other interesting thoughts, is also defended in a new article by Heslin & Keating (2016). They argue that a learning mode is of great importance for leadership development. Central to their model is the thought that a growth mindset strongly stimulates leadership development whereas a fixed mindset thwarts it. The picture below summarizes the main points made in the article:

Fig. 1. The role of mindset cues and mindsets in leaders being in learning mode, as mediated by motives.  

At the center of the picture there is the term mindset cues. These are various types of triggers or signals which either provoke a fixes mindset or a growth mindset. Some examples of such cues are the way in which is talked about or thought about tasks, capabilities, failure, weaknesses, feedback and criticism (read the article for further explanation about mindset cues). Together these cues bring us in fixed mindset or a growth mindset (see the second ring in the model). 

The next ring is about the most important motivation of the person. People in a fixed mindset tend to have as their prime motive what is called self-enhancement. They try to feel good about themselves and their own performance and they try to be seen by others as capable and successful. People in a growth mindset tend to have as their prime motive to improve themselves. They are constantly focused on learning new things and they seek challenges in order to do this.

In the outer ring are three phases of experiential learning: the approach phase, the action phase and the reflection phase. The picture shows how individuals in a growth mindset act and think in these phases. The approach phase is characterized by a focus on learning and a conscious focus on improving areas which need improvement. Also, the actively seek challenges and they set learning goals of which the positive outcomes are not assured. The action phase is characterized by systematically trying things, by constructively responding to feedback, and by perseverance after setbacks. The reflection phase is characterized by deliberate reflection on what has worked and what has not worked, by seeking alternatives and by distilling lessons learned.


Because leadership by definition is a about dealing with uncertainty and complexity, a growth mindset is a prerequisite for leadership development.