The Three-Legged Stool of Modern Leadership

Authored by

Chris Weller
The concepts of growth mindset, psychological safety, and accountability define an effective new type of leadership.

Today’s leaders have their attention pulled in all different directions, making it difficult to know which areas actually make a difference. Do you focus on resilience, collaboration, or creativity? Grit or empathy? Culture building or innovation? Or do you forsake all those and just focus on the bottom line?

These competing priorities are a defining affliction of contemporary workplaces. In rare instances, leaders may choose wisely. But the deck is so stacked against them that it often creates a safety bias — a default to what’s least risky. At the organizational level, many companies try to cram as many principles and values into their leadership framework as possible, hoping they won’t miss anything important. What results is a laundry list of dozens of competencies that nobody can remember or use in their day-to-day work.

What organizations need is a much simpler collection of priorities. (As the saying goes, if you have more than three priorities, you actually have zero priorities.) In studying the neuroscience of high-quality leadership, it’s clear there are three focus areas that combine to create effective leadership that serves both the needs of employees and the organization. These essential focus areas are cultivating a growth mindset, building psychological safety, and instilling accountability.

When leaders build the right habits around these concepts, they’re able to create a team culture where high performance is expected, rewarded, and recognized as a continual work in progress.

A three-legged stool

We can think of growth mindset, psychological safety, and accountability as the three legs of a stool. The stool needs all three legs in order to work properly. If just one of the legs is wobbly or missing, the stool malfunctions. Similarly, if a leader is deficient in any of the three focus areas, their team won’t live up to its potential. To understand the value of each leg of the stool, let’s first define the three concepts.

Growth mindset is the belief that one’s abilities can be improved over time; they aren’t set from birth or innate to who we are, which represents a “fixed mindset.” People with a growth mindset tend to view failure through a different lens, namely, seeing setbacks as opportunities for improvement rather than threats to their perceived competence. Growth mindset in a team setting means one’s focus is on getting better, not being the best.

Psychological safety is the confidence and assuredness to take interpersonal risks, speak up, or disagree openly without fear of punishment. People who feel a sense of psychological safety within their team are comfortable voicing their opinions and challenging the status quo, even if it means disagreeing with a high-status person, like a manager. Psychological safety matters because it enables teams to compare various ideas or strategies and, through the friction of honest discussion, arrive at the optimal decision.

Lastly, accountability is the commitment to — and sense of ownership over — one’s responsibilities. People who feel accountable to others know they are being depended on and that if they drop the ball, the team’s performance could suffer. It’s up to leaders to create a culture in which people know what’s expected of them so clearly that they don’t need anyone holding them accountable; rather, they opt to hold themselves accountable. For the system to work, leaders must also model holding themselves to the same standard of accountability.

These three elements work together to help employees feel confident about what’s expected of them and keep them in the right mindset to meet those expectations. If we take away one or more elements, a critical aspect of leadership goes missing. Let’s see how that could play out in a realistic workplace scenario.

Removing one leg at a time

Marco is a middle manager to four front-line managers. He’s responsible for making sure each of the four teams within his division is running smoothly and hitting their quarterly targets. Marco has always been viewed as a top performer, as he’s created a culture in his department where people know what’s expected of them, and they feel bound to one another as a unified team. They know mistakes will happen, and they make sure to learn from them when they arise. Now, let’s take away one element at a time and see what happens to Marco’s quality of leadership.

If we remove the team’s growth mindset, Marco’s direct reports will focus on short-term results at all costs because they want to be perceived as the highest performer. Looking good in Marco’s eyes becomes more important than succeeding as a team. When failures happen, egos get bruised. There’s no focus on how to learn or do better next time, only on how to avoid looking bad. The four front-line managers feel accountable to their goals only in terms of preserving their status.

Now, let’s remove psychological safety instead. Marco’s team is focused on getting better over looking good, and they know what’s expected of them, but they live in fear of disrupting team harmony. Marco’s reports never challenge one another in team meetings, and they wouldn’t think to question Marco’s judgment. They may have healthy attitudes toward self-improvement, but it’s untapped potential because nobody takes the necessary risks to try anything new. Innovation stalls, and people begin to blame one another. Marco blames his team for being unoriginal, and his team members quietly resent his unwillingness to take feedback.

Finally, let’s remove accountability. Marco’s teams embrace learning from mistakes, but they don’t commit to sharing those lessons with one another. And they feel comfortable speaking up and disagreeing, but they don’t feel a responsibility to actually follow through. As a result, these collegial habits don’t translate into higher performance. Marco has invested all his energy in building a culture focused on interpersonal dynamics, and he’s failed to set or enforce clear expectations for performance. Everyone is getting along, but results have become an afterthought. The teams begin to fall short of their goals.

Striking a balance

Do any of these scenarios feel familiar to you? In the first scenario, Marco’s team members become obsessed with preserving their own image rather than growing by trying new things. In the second scenario, performance stagnates because Marco’s team gets into a rut. When they don’t feel safe to take risks and challenge each other, the team can’t meet its potential. And in the third scenario, Marco’s team is generally friendly but doesn’t maintain a focus on getting results.

If you’ve ever been in or currently find yourself in one of these situations, don’t feel embarrassed. In working with most of the companies in the Fortune 100, we’ve found that it’s extremely rare for even the most high-performing, high-powered executives to strike the right balance between growth mindset, psychological safety, and accountability. Usually, leaders are lucky to have two, with the third a bit shaky.

You have time to build better habits in these domains. All of them will stay relevant for years to come, especially as artificial intelligence and hybrid work become mainstays in the working world. Having dispersed teams aided by AI software will require leaders to lean into the human side of work even more: helping people to adapt and evolve their skills (growth mindset); feeling comfortable working with people — and machines — across the globe (psychological safety); and through it all, staying focused on driving the right outcomes (accountability).  In a world that seems to be constantly in flux, leaders can use these three principles as sources of stability, helping them ignore the noise and confidently focus their attention on what matters most.

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