Being a leader can feel like being pulled in multiple directions at once. Communicate clear goals, but be adaptable. Show vulnerability, but also strength and reliability. Inspire confidence in your abilities, while constantly working on self-improvement.
But although these feel like contradictions, I don’t believe they really are. Why would your team work hard to achieve goals they can clearly see are no longer relevant? If you never show your human side, how can they rely on you to understand their struggles? Why would they trust your abilities if you seem uninterested in keeping your skills up to date?
In the same way, I think people see Stoicism and growth mindset as being very different concepts. One’s about being tough and resilient, the other’s about learning new things – right? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.
What are growth and fixed mindsets?
Have you ever struggled with something, then caught yourself thinking “I’m just not up to this”? Or made a mistake and decided “I’m never going to manage it”?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say… yes you have. I know I have!
We all have these moments of frustration. And that’s fine. But the more we wear the grooves of those thoughts into our minds, the harder it is to move onto different tracks.
This is part of the self-fulfilling prophecy of what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”. People with a fixed mindset take the view that we’re basically unchangeable. When confronted with a difficult problem, they assume they either have the tools to overcome it or they don’t, and there’s nothing they can do about it. If they fail, it’s because they’re just not up to it .
And the more they dwell and act on those thoughts, the harder it becomes to change them.
But the great news is… there is a different way of looking at it. Our amazing brains are changing all the time. We can reroute those mental pathways to what Dweck, in her book Mindset, describes as a “growth mindset”.
Instead of thinking “I failed, so clearly I can’t do this”, it becomes “I failed because I can’t do this yet. What can I learn from this experience so I do better next time?”
Rather than “there’s only one way to do this”, it’s “can I come up with new, creative strategies?”
“I was criticised because I’m not good at this” is reframed as “I received feedback which can help me improve”.
The link to Stoicism
The way I see it, growth mindset has a lot in common with Stoic philosophy.
Stoicism considers how you approach life and face challenges. How do you figure out what’s right, and how to live well? How do you improve yourself, and your community? A key focus is how to respond to difficult situations. Whatever it is, the same principle applies: Well, that happened. What now?
This isn’t about repressing your emotions. It’s about putting your energy into what you do want, rather than dwelling on what you don’t want.
Say you’re trying to land a new client, and you fail. They explain that they were impressed by your pitch, but ultimately went for a cheaper option.
What’s the Stoic response? First, recognise the situation and accept what happened. Then, see what lessons you can take from it – perhaps you need to focus more on what makes your company worth the extra cost? Finally, implement those changes and move on.
Doesn’t this sound just like growth mindset?
The dangers of fixed mindset for leaders
Many people misinterpret Stoicism as a ‘fixed mindset’ philosophy. They think someone stoic is a rather old-fashioned, stiff-upper-lip type who refuses to change.
I’m sure many of us have met that kind of person. Plenty of leaders see themselves as steady and stoic, as setting a course for the company and sticking to it – no matter what.
But they fail to see that there’s a big difference between conviction and stubbornness, between stoicism and closed-mindedness. They’re so sure they know best that they get defensive when challenged, and often undermine people who come in with new perspectives.
To reuse an Epictetus quote from my last blog post, “a person is not going to undertake to learn anything that they think they already know.” That fixed thinking is disastrous for leaders, and it’s something the Stoics warned against.
Translating this to teams
So how can you encourage stoicism and a growth mindset in your team?
Dweck sets out a great first step in her 2014 TED talk. Her research was in a school setting, but it’s relevant for anyone in a mentoring or leadership role. She explains that our reward systems are often based on outcome, not effort. But that just nudges people into a fixed mindset – I didn’t get the results, so I’m not good enough. She suggests a new approach:
“We can praise wisely, not praising intelligence or talent. That has failed. Don’t do that anymore. But praising the process that kids engage in: their effort, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their improvement. This ‘process praise’ creates kids who are hardy and resilient.”
In the same talk, she describes creating a maths game which rewards progress, rather than just knowing the right answer, right now. The result? “More effort, more strategies and more engagement over longer periods of time, and more perseverance when they hit really, really hard problems.”
More hard-working, more creative, more committed, more resilient. Now doesn’t that sound like exactly the kind of team member you want?