leadership development

by Ryan Gottfredson, PhD

What topics do most leadership development programs focus on?

The short list surely includes interpersonal communication, general management skills, leadership styles, delegation, building effective teams, and motivation.

In a recent study of 153 organizations that I conducted, I found that only 33% reported that they “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that their leadership development efforts were effective at developing their leaders.

That percentage might be good in baseball, but when it comes to leadership development, that is dismal, especially when we recognize that organizations spend over $350 billion a year on leadership development.

Where are Organizations Missing the Mark?

One primary area of focus that is missing is on a part of the leader that controls all of the topics generally focused on (interpersonal skills, management skills, leadership style, delegation, and ability to build effective teams or motivate employees): the leader’s mind.

Why don’t most leadership development efforts focus more on the mind?

It is the combination of two things:

  1. The vast majority of leadership development ideas commonly relied upon originated pre-2005
  2. The vast majority of neuroscience research has occurred post-2005

Consider this chart that shows the number of neuroscience dissertations by year for the last 50 years:

neuroscience dissertations

This means that almost all leadership development ideas essentially ignore the foundational part of why a leader does what he or she does.

As we learn more about the part of leaders that is foundational to how they process and operate (i.e., their mind), it becomes critical that we integrate this understanding into our leadership development efforts.

The basic assumption is: If we can improve how leaders process and operate in their mind, we can more readily improve their effectiveness.

Harnessing the Power of the Mind in Leadership Development

To harness the power of the mind in leadership development, we need to focus on an aspect of our brain that drives our brain’s processing: our mindsets.

Our mindsets are often described as our mental lenses that shape how we see and process our world, and therefore are foundational to how we operate in our world.

But, in reality, our mindsets are long-range neural connections in our brain that connect our reptilian (basal ganglia), mammalian (limbic system), and human (neocortex) brains. Effectively, they serve as the circuit board for our brain that performs three primary jobs:

  1. Since our body sends our brain way more information than we can process, our mindsets first filter in the most important and valuable information (largely occurs in the basal ganglia).
  2. Our mindsets then put meaning on, or interpret, this information, largely based upon our memory and past experiences (largely occurs in our limbic system).
  3. Based upon the information filtered in and how it is interpreted, our mindsets activate the different traits and goal-regulation strategies to best respond to what we have filtered in and interpreted.

What Mindsets Do Leaders Need to Develop?

If leaders’ mindsets are central to how leaders process and operate, they need to become a primary focus when developing leaders. This is perhaps the best way we know how to focus on the mind as part of leadership development.

Something that often holds organizations up from focusing on mindsets, however, is that they don’t know which mindsets to focus on.

I have scoured the academic literature to identify mindsets that have been researched and have been continually demonstrated to impact how people think, learn, and behave. From this research, I have identified four mindsets that have been repeatedly found to lead to optimal processing and operation for leaders:

  • Growth Mindset: The belief that people can change their talents, abilities, and intelligence, leading to a focus on learning and growing
  • Open Mindset: The belief that one can be wrong, leading to a focus on thinking optimally, and finding truth
  • Promotion Mindset: Having a meaningful destination that one is working toward (i.e., focus on winning), leading to a willingness to do the difficult but necessary things to get to that destination
  • Outward Mindset: The believe that others are just as important as oneself, leading to one seeing others as people and valuing them as such


Ryan GottfredsonIf we want to do a better job of developing our leaders, we need to do a better job of focusing on the mind of a leader. Perhaps the best way to do that is to focus on mindsets.

If you want to identify the quality of your mindsets, I have developed a FREE Personal Mindset Assessment that assesses the quality of your mindsets relative to the 11,000+ others who have taken the assessment. Plus, it will provide you with numerous resources on how to go about improving your mindsets.

About the author

Ryan Gottfredson, Ph.D. is the Wall Street Journal and USA Today best-selling author of Success Mindsets: The Key to Unlocking Greater Success in Your Life, Work, & Leadership. He is also a leadership professor at the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics at California State University-Fullerton. Connect with him here.