Cultivating a strong leadership mindset can help you and your team rise above almost any challenge.
What separates a great leader from a good one or an effective leader from someone who struggles in the role? What it comes down to most often—as with many other things in life—is one’s mindset.
Think about the last time you faced a problem. You didn’t just sit there—you took action to fix it or deal with it. Your leadership mindset helped guide you through that difficult moment by helping you make the right decision at the right time
Leaders influence their team members’ performance and how they feel about their work. Therefore, leaders must cultivate a strong leadership mindset if they are going to successfully handle today’s complex challenges and contribute to a healthy organizational culture.
The Importance of Emotional Courage
A strong leadership mindset is nearly impossible to cultivate and exhibit without emotional courage: the ability to be authentic and vulnerable with yourself and those around you. Emotional courage is critical because it allows leaders to lead with integrity and heart—to have an intimate relationship with their feelings so they can connect deeply and honestly with themselves and others.
Leaders who lack emotional courage are often afraid of feeling the difficult emotions that come with uncertainty, complexity, and the need to take bold actions or stand up for their beliefs. They often fear judgment or rejection if they don’t conform perfectly in every situation, which creates a disconnect between them and those around them, making a genuine connection difficult.
Leaders who demonstrate emotional courage understand their potential hang-ups better than most because they dare to look honestly at how they think, feel, and behave in various conditions rather than avoiding harsh truths or making excuses. They are willing to admit when something needs to change and then set out to change it. They embrace personal development and growth not from a fear of not being good enough but because they want to cultivate the best possible version of themselves—no matter how uncomfortable it might be.
Working With Thoughts and Emotions
Work is full of moments that can rev our internal dialog into overdrive, often with unhelpful chatter that produces emotions that sabotage any attempt at tranquility. But this is how our minds are wired—to anticipate problems and avoid dangers.
What gets in the way of effective leadership is not the existence of these inner thoughts and dialog but the act of ‘buying in’ to them and paying them too much attention. As a result, we can become fixated and use up valuable cognitive resources needed to maintain a healthy perspective, make good decisions, and take positive action.
So, how can we as leaders handle difficult thoughts and emotions at work?
Unfortunately, controlling or suppressing our thoughts and emotions only strengthens them. Therefore, we need to cultivate emotional intelligence and practice emotional agility rather than attempting to manage or restrain our thoughts and feelings.
Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
EQ is the ability to identify one’s emotions, recognize them in others, and understand how they influence people’s behavior. To do this, we first need self-awareness—to understand and accept we are at our deepest core.
Those with high EQs often make good choices despite pressures from other people or circumstances; when facing problems—they are proactive instead of reactive, take responsibility for outcomes rather than blaming others and listen carefully before responding so that responses are thoughtful rather than emotional reactions.
Emotional agility is the practice of allowing thoughts and emotions (even negative ones) to exist without being fixated on them. It frees up cognitive real estate and diminishes the distractions that strong feelings can have on our ability to lead.
Here are the basic steps to practicing emotional agility:
- Recognize your patterns: To change, you first must recognize where you are stuck and what needs to change.
- Label your thoughts and emotions: Naming thoughts and emotions helps create distance from them. They are simply sources of data and not the whole truth.
- Accept your thoughts and emotions: Be open to what you are experiencing without judgment. Allow yourself to feel emotional energy patterns and understand that these do not control you.
- Act on your values: Rather than react from an emotional place, root your actions in your values. Will your response to this situation/thought/emotion be helpful and in line with your values or the values and goals of your organization?
Consistently practicing these steps when difficult thoughts and emotions arise allows us to take a more mindful, rational perspective of our mental activities while also strengthening our ability to feel strong emotions without being carried away.
Common Leadership Mind Traps
In addition to cultivating a strong EQ, leading with emotional courage, and practicing emotional agility, a strong leadership mindset can be strengthened by avoiding common “mind traps” that can undermine a leader’s ability to make good decisions and connect with their team. The following are some common mind traps that many leaders fall into.
I’m not good enough.
This common trap prevents people from taking the initiative, making decisions, and getting things done. It can be paralyzing because it puts you in a position where you feel like you have to wait for someone else to make the first move.
I’m not smart enough.
This is one of the most prevalent traps we see in leaders today—they’re worried about looking stupid or being wrong, so they don’t take risks and keep their opinions to themselves. As a result, they make decisions based on what others think instead of their judgment or expertise.
I’m not strong enough.
When leaders think this way, they become afraid to go above the status quo because there will be pushback from others, especially those who are used to doing things a certain way. They’re afraid they aren’t strong enough to handle the emotional discomfort and certainly don’t want to be labeled as “pushy.”
Failure makes me/us look bad
Our fear of having failure reflect poorly on ourselves can keep us from the uncomfortable task of understanding what went wrong and why. Many people choose to instantly move on rather than see a failure as a valuable opportunity to learn and grow.
A leadership mindset is a powerful tool for achieving success. It allows leaders to deal with problems and challenges in a way that makes them more likely to succeed. However, it can be challenging to develop this mindset if you’re not honest with yourself, not used to thinking of yourself as a leader, or don’t know where to start.
The first step is to assess your current mindset. Are there beliefs that are holding you back? Do you struggle with difficult thoughts or emotions to the point where they negatively impact your ability to lead? Do you fall into any of the common mind traps? Alternatively, what attitudes and expectations have been especially helpful to you?
Cultivating a strong leadership mindset is some of the most powerful work a leader can engage in. Our mind is our most valuable tool, so it makes sense to hone it and wield it well—for the betterment of our teams, community, and most of all, ourselves.