Growth mindset for a parent and a leader

It’s that time of the year in some parts of the world, when schools are finishing their academic year. The students get their grades from the exams and parents either rejoice or fret at the performance of their children.

We are having one of those movies run at our home too. Our son who I refer to as the Boy in all my blogs, is a happy go lucky one. If he does well, it was because he knew all of it. If he didn’t, it is because the questions were too tough, or that he didn’t have time, or that what he scored is better than most in the class. While I am not someone who is worried about the marks he scores, I do see that most of the time it is not reading something till he understands, or an over sight, or the over confidence in his intellect- that is the result of poor performance. The task for both of us as parents has been to let him understand the importance of the process of learning, the way he learns and the way he then is able to do his best at anything. We are trying to inculcate the “Growth mindset” in him.

The word Growth Mindset was coined by Carole S Dweck, based on years of research. In very simple words, what she suggests is there are two major kinds of mindsets. The Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset. The fixed mindset is focused on the idea that intelligence is fixed and hence the focus is on success. Failure is avoided at all costs and the blame for falling short is externalized. Growth Mindset is focused on the idea that intelligence can be grown, hence the process and practice to become better takes importance. As a parent, we want the Boy to see how his efforts make a difference in his understanding, articulation and ability to handle challenges. It is not the results but the process he is investing in, that leads to certain excellence, is the point we want him to understand.

While this is easy to preach, a lot of times it isn’t easy for us to practice. Our own beliefs about our capability, our fears of failure get revealed in day to day actions. We must strive in our own ways to show him the power of the process. The husband started to learn to play the violin only in his 30s. With no formal learning in Carnatic music, picking up an instrument as complex as a violin is no joke. Yet he pursues, he diligently practices many hours a week trying to catch up for all the years he did not know much of music. He constantly listens and corrects his notes. The Boy on the other hand, started playing it only 3 years ago. With age and formal musical training on his side, he can play just as well as the father. He sees how the effort and practice makes a difference in his father, that his father is willing to falter, ask him for help and hone his skills, is something I hope the Boy imbibes over the years.

I have had to change my own shortcomings in the process too. My fear for driving a car on the crowded roads in India was a standing joke in my house. I was fine driving on the “wrong” side of the road in high speed lanes of the US.  But the moment I sat in the driver’s seat in Mumbai, my brain froze. For years I gave excuses- bad traffic, won’t find places to park, the stress levels are too much. The best one was, I would rather employ someone and thus feed a family. However, 2 years ago, I decided that I was just afraid of failing, and hence was avoiding. So what if I bang the car once or twice? The pace of driving is so slow on most roads that one would only get some dents and no major damages anyway. So what if I stalled the car and someone irritatingly shouts or honks at me? I can overcome this only if I start driving. What started off with short distances in the neighbourhood, has now graduated to full fledged driving  all over the city, even with a poor GPS to guide. The Boy who started off by teasing me for my fear has now seen me mature into a decent, confident driver that he is proud of. And every time he says he can’t do something or unwilling to try, these examples are quoted. He realizes that it is possible to overcome fear, that it is possible to get better with practice.

I believe this is no different for leaders in the corporate setting. My consulting work allows me to observe and watch senior leaders in their day to day setting. I can see a distinct difference between people who exhibit the fixed mindset and the ones that exhibit the growth mindset. The former, use their position and power and demand respect. The latter, are willing to learn and accept their shortcomings as the means to grow. They command respect.

Instances where I have witnessed growth mindset are things that most of us can consciously learn and follow:

  • Learning a new skill: Very rarely do senior leaders think there is a need to learn something new. While they are busy running the business, there is always something new one could learn. I know a CFO who spent a year to learn Project Management and Programming skills, while performing his high-pressure role. To him this was important as it was the only way he could understand the minute nuts and bolts of the business and help improve the processes.
  • Surrounding self with diverse people: When you have people around you from diverse background, it means there will be different points of view. For a leader to thrive in such an environment is more difficult. It makes one vulnerable. It is comfortable to surround with people who will say yes to things and share your point of view. Yet I see this leader choosing on purpose to have a diverse team and be challenged.
  • Talking about failures openly: Few leaders have the courage to say they made a mistake and would be willing to talk about it openly. Yet when there is an honest admission of such an instance, it builds trust in the team and it also leads them to be open about their issues. One such leader I have come across, commands great respect for always being transparent, in success and failures in equal measure.
  • Focusing on the process not just the results: Leadership is about delivering results. That’s what they are measured on and that’s what they are paid for. In a sales organisation, closing a deal and at good margins is an important parameter of success. It is not uncommon to hear stories of how some people will do anything to get a deal. A leader I know, focuses not just on the winning but also the process of winning. Any instance where the process has been questionable, or the behaviour of the person hasn’t been as per the values of the company, the leader has been ruthless about consequences. Showing that the process is just as important as winning, is a quality that shows growth mindset.

Parenting and leadership may seem like completely different skills, yet the more I see the Boy grow, I realise that they are not different. Both require you to constantly educate and demonstrate what you expect from the other. Both need you to recalibrate from time to time on what is important and both require you to constantly learn and grow. The CEO of a large company I worked with once said “the best CEOs are the ones with teenage children, as the children constantly demonstrate how redundant you are”!


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