By Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN
I am sometimes asked what I think is the single most important attribute needed by nurse leaders in today’s environment. Without a doubt, I believe it is the ability to have and continue to cultivate a “growth mindset”. Dr. Carol Dweck, a researcher and professor at Stanford University, has been a pioneer in studying how transformative a growth mindset can be for individuals that is applicable to leadership. A mindset, according to Dweck, is a self-perception or “self-theory” that people hold about themselves. Mindsets can either be growth oriented or fixed. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment
Nurse leaders in their first few years of leadership sometimes believe that they can’t be good leaders or were not cut out to lead others because the work is very challenging. This can lead to a fixed mindset that results in the new leader leaving the position. What we know is that leadership is a journey with many ups and downs especially in the first few years. Without leadership development early in the leader’s transition, feelings of failure can easily emerge.
When you have a growth mindset, you believe that you can and will learn and achieve. A growth mindset results in a powerful belief that anyone can be a leader if he or she decides to learn, work, and develop leadership skills and characteristics. Even when you fail — and you’re human, so you’ll fail from time to time — you won’t be defeated. Instead of giving up and going home, you’ll begin to look at every situation as a learning experience. When you fail, you’ll figure out what went wrong and work on making sure it doesn’t happen next time. You don’t write yourself off and are willing to step outside your comfort zone.
Leaders also need to maintain a growth mindset when working with staff. Leaders with a growth mindset (who assume talents can be developed) place high value on learning, are open to feedback, and are confident in their ability to cultivate their own and others’ abilities. Leaders with a fixed mindset (who assume basic talents are carved in stone) place greater value on looking smart and are less likely to believe that they or others can change. We know from Gallup research that staff look to their leaders for hope and this hope includes the belief that staff can learn and grow. Leaders who embrace the growth mindset know learning and progress are both just as important as effort.
When you adopt a growth mindset, you look for opportunities to improve yourself, often through ongoing education. Even if you are a recognized expert in a certain subject, it is always possible to learn new things, especially if you study previously learned information in a fresh way. Leaders with a growth mindset seek out mentorship and ask a lot of questions. They recognize that they can learn from the struggles and experiences of others.
To cultivate a growth mindset, recognize that you are a work in progress. You have complete control over your mindset. Even if you are prone to a fixed mindset, all hope is not lost. You can change your way of thinking and if you do, it will greatly improve your life.
Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Penguin Publishers.
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