Skillset or Mindset, What Helps Businesses Grow?

August 28, 2015

We are in the midst of a, “leadership development crisis”. Or so writes president of the Advance Learning Group, Professor Howard Prager.


In summary, Prager concludes that a combination of the following is the way to solve the crisis:


  • Recruit leaders who want to develop others

  • Treat leadership development as a whole organisation process

  • Supply leaders with ongoing support and development

  • Give leaders time to lead instead of manage


These are great benchmarks for developing effective leadership. But when recruiting and developing the next ‘vision holder’, what are we actually committing to in order to deliver on the above criteria? More importantly, is it skillset or mindset that will help a business grow?


Mindset (mind-set) n. A fixed mental attitude or disposition that predetermines a person’s responses to and interpretations of situations. 


Since Plato’s Meno dialogues and Socrates’s Theaetetus, the most brilliant minds in history have studied mindset and how it influences the way ‘man’ makes meaning of the world. 19th century Scottish philosopher, James Frederick Ferrier, named this pursuit, epistemology, (the study of knowledge) and called it, “the true beginning of philosophy.”


20th century developmental psychologists like Freud, Erikson, Piaget, Loevinger, Maslow and Kolhberg researched mindset and how it changed over the course of one’s life. Their research demonstrated that:


  • There are archetypal stages people transition through from infancy to adulthood and beyond

  • Each stage is marked by defining characteristics

  • A transition from one stage to the next changes the way one acquires, interprets and applies information

  • Transition between stages can only happen once the preceding stage is fully integrated (i.e. crawl before walk)

  • Not everyone continues to expand mindset beyond adulthood


So what does mindset have to do with leadership?


Today developmental psychologists like William Torbert and Susan Cook-Greuter are applying what their predecessors discovered about mindset to leadership. With 25 years of extensive survey-based consulting at companies such as Deutsche Bank, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Hewlett-Packard, NSA, Trillium Asset Management, Aviva and Volvo, Torbert and Cook-Greuter worked with thousands of executives as they’ve tried to develop their leadership acumen. What they found was that,


“what differentiates leaders is not so much their philosophy of leadership, their personality or their style of management. Rather, it’s their internal “action logic” – how they interpret their surroundings and react when their power or safety is challenged.” (Rooke, Torbert, Seven Transformations of Leadership, Harvard Business Review, 1995, p. 1)


Torbert went on to build a developmental model mapping leadership based on the principle of “action logic”. According to Torbert’s research sample, 4% of the leaders studied sat at a stage in their human development, which enabled them to:


  • Deal with conflict more comfortably than those with other “action logics”

  • Handle people’s instinctive resistance to change

  • Be adept at creating shared visions that encourage both personal and organisational transformation

  • Seek to weave together idealist visions with pragmatic, timely initiatives and principled actions

  • Work to create ethical principles and practice beyond the interests of herself or her organisation

(Rooke, Torbert, Seven Transformations of Leadership, Harvard Business Review, 1995, pp. 5-6)


Torbert went on to test these assumptions by selecting ten CEOs in six different industries. All of their organisations had the intent to transform themselves and had engaged consultants to help them do so. After filling out an assessment profile, five out of the ten sat in the 4% sample with the above capabilities. The other five sat at earlier “action logics”. The results demonstrated that by the end of the four-year study, five out of the five who sat in the later stage “action logic” were able to,


“generate one or more organisational transformations; the companies’ profitability, market share and reputation all improved. In contrast, only two of the other five CEOs succeeded in transforming their organisations despite help from consultants. (Rooke, Torbert, Seven Transformations of Leadership, Harvard Business Review, 1995, p. 6)


Torbert also generated the GLP (Global Leadership Profile) as an assessment tool, which enables leaders to try to understand their own “action logics” and explore the possibility of changing it. His research found that leaders could transform from one “action logic” to another if they are willing to invest in their own human development…


“The leader’s voyage of development is not an easy one. Some people change little in their lifetimes; some change substantially… Those who are willing to work at developing themselves and becoming more self-aware can almost certainly evolve over time into truly transformational leaders.” (Rooke, Torbert, Seven Transformations of Leadership, Harvard Business Review, 1995, p.11)


In his article, Prager sets firm benchmarks for ‘what’ is needed to ensure effective leadership in our businesses and organisations. Clearly, paradigms that prioritise investment in both skillset and mindset are required. But the gap between intent and action is wide. The degree of commitment needed to take the kinds of vertical leaps in human development that will inspire whole organisations to follow depend on a willingness to understand the limitations of one’s own mindset… and to challenge them.


Next time I will explore both the external and internal drivers that activate vertical leaps in human development, and effective ways of challenging your own mindset as part of your daily leadership practice.


Until then, this is Susanna Carman inviting you to... lead before you leap.


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