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In learning mode? The role of mindsets in derailing and enabling experiential leadership development Peter A. Heslin , Lauren A. Keating UNSW Australia Business School, Australia article info abstract Article history: Received 21 December 2015 Received in revised form 17 October 2016 Accepted 17 October 2016 Available online 24 October 2016 In comparison to the vast literature on leadership theories, concepts, and behaviors, relatively less is known about why leaders often learn little from their leadership experiences, as well as how to support them in doing so. We propose that leaders learn more from their challenging leadership experiences when they are in learning mode, dened as intentionally framing and pursuing each element of the experiential learning process with more of a growth than a xed mindset. We describe how the extent to which leaders are in learning mode stems from salient mindset cues and guides whether they work through the experiential learning process with a predominantly self-improvement or self-enhancement motive. We theorize about several other likely mediators and moderators of when being in learning mode will man- ifest in experiential leadership development. Practical implications at the micro, meso, and macro levels, as well as within management education are outlined. © 2016 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. Keywords: Leadership development Experiential learning Mindsets Motives In learning mode Introduction Learning to be an effective leader is an ongoing endeavor. Indeed, as Bennis (1994, p. 1) noted, people who cannot invent and reinvent themselves must be content with borrowed postures, second-hand ideas, tting in instead of standing out.Although much has been written about how leaders need to continue honing their skills, the demand for effective leadership at all levels, as well as the prevalence of inept leadership, creates an imperative for more useful and efcient concepts to improve the quality of leadership development within all types of organizations (Day, Fleenor, Atwater, Sturm, & McKee, 2014). Leadership development research has shown that predisposed levels of leadership ability, intelligence, and personality inu- ence early leadership effectiveness (e.g., Arvey, Zhang, Avolio, & Krueger, 2007; Judge, Bono, Ilies, & Gerhardt, 2002). Yet leader- ship competencies can also be cultivated over time. Lester, Hannah, Harms, Vogelgesang, and Avolio (2011) observed that leaders' self-efcacy and leadership performance can be enhanced by a comprehensive mentorship program. Leadership development may also be fostered by engaging in facilitated play (Kark, 2011), courses focused on reection and personal development (Petriglieri, Wood, & Petriglieri, 2011), and service-learning programs in developing countries (Pless, Maak, & Stahl, 2011). Challenging man- agerial assignments are arguably the most effective means for facilitating leadership development (Day & Dragoni, 2015), espe- cially when focused on cultivating targeted competencies (Dragoni, Tesluk, Russell, & Oh, 2009) and supplemented by leaders systematically reecting on the insights they glean from such challenging experiences (Ashford & DeRue, 2012; DeRue, Nahrgang, Hollenbeck, & Workman, 2012). The Leadership Quarterly 28 (2017) 367384 Corresponding author at: UNSW Australia Business School, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia. E-mail address: [email protected] (P.A. Heslin). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2016.10.010 1048-9843/© 2016 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. Contents lists available at ScienceDirect The Leadership Quarterly journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/leaqua

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The Leadership Quarterly 28 (2017) 367–384

Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

The Leadership Quarterly

j ourna l homepage: www.e lsev ie r .com/ locate / leaqua

In learningmode? The role ofmindsets in derailing and enablingexperiential leadership development

Peter A. Heslin ⁎, Lauren A. KeatingUNSW Australia Business School, Australia

a r t i c l e i n f o

⁎ Corresponding author at: UNSW Australia BusinessE-mail address: [email protected] (P.A. Heslin).

http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2016.10.0101048-9843/© 2016 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

a b s t r a c t

Article history:Received 21 December 2015Received in revised form 17 October 2016Accepted 17 October 2016Available online 24 October 2016

In comparison to the vast literature on leadership theories, concepts, and behaviors, relativelyless is known about why leaders often learn little from their leadership experiences, as well ashow to support them in doing so. We propose that leaders learn more from their challengingleadership experiences when they are in learning mode, defined as intentionally framing andpursuing each element of the experiential learning process with more of a growth than afixed mindset. We describe how the extent to which leaders are in learning mode stemsfrom salient mindset cues and guides whether they work through the experiential learningprocess with a predominantly self-improvement or self-enhancement motive. We theorizeabout several other likely mediators and moderators of when being in learning mode will man-ifest in experiential leadership development. Practical implications at the micro, meso, andmacro levels, as well as within management education are outlined.

© 2016 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Keywords:Leadership developmentExperiential learningMindsetsMotivesIn learning mode


Learning to be an effective leader is an ongoing endeavor. Indeed, as Bennis (1994, p. 1) noted, “people who cannot invent andreinvent themselves must be content with borrowed postures, second-hand ideas, fitting in instead of standing out.” Althoughmuch has been written about how leaders need to continue honing their skills, the demand for effective leadership at all levels,as well as the prevalence of inept leadership, creates an imperative for more useful and efficient concepts to improve the qualityof leadership development within all types of organizations (Day, Fleenor, Atwater, Sturm, & McKee, 2014).

Leadership development research has shown that predisposed levels of leadership ability, intelligence, and personality influ-ence early leadership effectiveness (e.g., Arvey, Zhang, Avolio, & Krueger, 2007; Judge, Bono, Ilies, & Gerhardt, 2002). Yet leader-ship competencies can also be cultivated over time. Lester, Hannah, Harms, Vogelgesang, and Avolio (2011) observed that leaders'self-efficacy and leadership performance can be enhanced by a comprehensive mentorship program. Leadership development mayalso be fostered by engaging in facilitated play (Kark, 2011), courses focused on reflection and personal development (Petriglieri,Wood, & Petriglieri, 2011), and service-learning programs in developing countries (Pless, Maak, & Stahl, 2011). Challenging man-agerial assignments are arguably the most effective means for facilitating leadership development (Day & Dragoni, 2015), espe-cially when focused on cultivating targeted competencies (Dragoni, Tesluk, Russell, & Oh, 2009) and supplemented by leaderssystematically reflecting on the insights they glean from such challenging experiences (Ashford & DeRue, 2012; DeRue,Nahrgang, Hollenbeck, & Workman, 2012).

School, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia.

368 P.A. Heslin, L.A. Keating / The Leadership Quarterly 28 (2017) 367–384

Relative to the voluminous literatures on leadership theories, behaviors, concepts, predictors, and skills (cf. Dinh et al., 2014;Yukl, 2012), much less is known about how to help leaders learn from their challenging experiences (McCauley, DeRue, Yost, &Taylor, 2014). This is a fundamental and consequential issue because learning from experience is neither automatic nor assured(Bandura, 1986; DeRue et al., 2012). From any particular developmental experience, one leader may learn a great deal while an-other learns little to nothing, or perhaps even the wrong lessons. Ashford and DeRue (2012) thus proposed that realizing the po-tential developmental value of challenging leadership experiences requires that leaders approach and deal with them mindfully;that is, in a manner whereby aspiring and actual leaders (henceforth simply “leaders”) are actively aware of themselves and theirsurroundings, open to new information, and systematically reflect upon their experiences from multiple perspectives.

To illuminate how leaders can learn from their challenging experiences, Ashford and DeRue (2012) developed a mindful en-gagement experiential learning process (henceforth simply “the experiential learning process”). They suggest that improvementsin leadership effectiveness are likely to stem from leaders mindfully cycling through the following three experiential learningphases: (i) approach, by embracing a learning orientation and setting learning goals, (ii) action, by creating and capitalizing onlearning opportunities via planning and conducting experiments; engaging in feedback seeking; and regulating their emotions,and (iii) reflection, which includes capturing the lessons of experience via diagnosing cause-and-effect, considering counterfac-tuals, and distilling the lessons learned.

Although the basis of the experiential learning process in learning and self-regulatory theory and research makes it a promis-ing approach for facilitating leadership development, Ashford and DeRue's (2012) model seems to presume that after initially em-bracing a learning orientation and setting learning goals, individuals will move through the action and reflection phases in anopen-minded and systematic way. However, when leaders encounter frustrating setbacks, they can readily become defensiveand more concerned with bolstering their self-esteem than learning or working to improve their performance (Jordan & Audia,2012; Kernis, 2003). DeRue et al. (2012) found that leaders reflect upon and learn from their challenging experiences whenthey have high conscientiousness, openness to experience, emotional stability, and cognitive ability. Given the relative stabilityof personality and cognitive ability, such findings imply that leaders lacking requisite levels of these dispositions will learn lessfrom experience-based leadership development initiatives, though do not address the within-person, dynamic issue of when agiven leader will learn more (or less) from such experiences, or how s/he may be assisted in this regard.

To supplement Ashford and DeRue's (2012) experiential learning process by addressing these issues, we theorize about whenleaders are prone to be more or less mindfully engaged in each aspect of the experiential learning process. We draw on three de-cades of theory and research in social, educational, and organizational psychology on mindsets; that is, an individual's implicit as-sumptions about the plasticity or fixedness of their personal attributes, labeled as growth and fixed mindsets, respectively(Dweck, 1986, 1999, 2012). Given that mindsets can be induced and readily changed, we suggest how mindset cues and leaders'resultant mindset can influence their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in ways that aid or impede their leadership development.We encapsulate the core of this theorizing by proposing the concept of being in learning mode, defined as intentionally framingand pursuing each element of the experiential learning process with more of a growth than a fixed mindset.

To theorize about how being in learning mode manifests in the way that leaders tackle their experiential leadership develop-ment tasks, we draw upon and extend performance feedback theory (Jordan & Audia, 2012) regarding the self-enhancement andself-improvement motives of managers when their performance is below their aspirations. We describe how a fixed mindset (i.e.,assuming that required abilities are largely immutable) may incline leaders to adopt a self-enhancement motive (i.e., the desire tosee oneself in a positive light; Fiske, 2004) that subsequently undermines experiential learning. By contrast, we suggest how agrowth mindset (i.e., assuming that required abilities can be developed) may cue a self-improvement motive (i.e., the desire toincrease one's capabilities and effectiveness; Fiske, 2004) that enables leaders to more seriously and systematically approach, tack-le, and reflect upon their challenging leadership experiences.

This article is intended to make four scholarly contributions. First, in striving to enrich Ashford and DeRue's (2012) model ofexperiential leadership development, we integrate three largely disparate literatures to theorize about when leaders' engagementin the experiential learning process may be derailed or enabled. Specifically, we draw on social psychological (i.e., mindsets), per-formance feedback (i.e., self-enhancement versus self-improvement motives), and leadership development (i.e., experientiallearning process) theory and research to suggest when leaders might be more or less mindfully engaged in experiential learning.In doing so, we extend Jordan and Audia's (2012) focus on motives in responding to feedback regarding decisions managers havemade, which broadly aligns to the reflection stage of the experiential learning process. We do so by theorizing about how self-enhancement plays out during approach and action, as well as the reflection phases of experiential learning.

Second, in contrast to predominantly between-person depictions of what stems from mindsets within the extant mindsets lit-erature, we model leaders' prevailing mindset as the fruit of the dynamic interplay between fixed and growth mindset cues with-in leaders and their social context. We propose that the extent to which leaders are in learning mode guides how mindfullyengaged they are in the experiential learning process, by virtue of shaping the way leaders perceive themselves and focus theirthoughts and actions in the context of challenging and potentially frustrating leadership experiences. Specifically, we explainhow mindset cues prime assumptions (mindsets) that manifest in behavioral inclinations (motives) with regard to the tasks in-volved in experiential leadership development (Ashford & DeRue, 2012), as depicted in Fig. 1.

This figure illustrates how growth mindset cues may support approaching leadership experiences with the growth mindsetand self-improvement motive that can foster experiential leadership development. Perhaps more importantly, Fig. 1 also illumi-nates how fixed mindset cues, a fixed mindset, and subsequent self-enhancement motive might function as unintended and per-haps even unrecognized impediments to experiential leadership development, by virtue of drawing leaders out of being inlearning mode.

Fig. 1. The role of mindset cues and mindsets in leaders being in learning mode, as mediated by motives.

369P.A. Heslin, L.A. Keating / The Leadership Quarterly 28 (2017) 367–384

Third, we conceptually extend the mindsets literature by explicating its potential relevance to the leadership development do-main, as well as describing how the widely documented effects of fixed and growth mindsets on learning and achievement(Burnette, O'Boyle, VanEpps, Pollack, & Finkel, 2013; Dweck, 2012) may be mediated by self-enhancement and self-improvementmotives (Jordan & Audia, 2012), respectively (see Fig. 1). This is important insofar as mindsets are merely assumptions about themalleability or rigidity of one's abilities. Most mindsets research demonstrates that mindsets result in particular thoughts and be-havior(s), without conceptually categorizing the host of relevant cognitive and behavioral inclinations that stem from mindsets ortheorizing about how they collectively explain the established relationships between mindsets and learning (see Burnette et al.,2013 for a notable exception). We thus propose that activated motives to focus primarily on either improving one's effectivenessor burnishing one's self-concept may explain how leaders' prevailing mindset can guide the way they approach and respond toleadership development challenges.

Finally, we suggest how leaders who are disinclined to systematically engage in experiential learning might be encouraged todo so. By illuminating how leaders' prevailing mindsets and motives can manifest in the leadership development domain, we offerthe leadership development literature a range of avenues for field research into the practical usefulness of conceptually-groundedstrategies for helping leaders to learn from their challenging experiences, by virtue of deliberately being in learning mode. Suchstrategies might be particularly valuable for those cued to hold a fixed mindset that impedes them from being in learningmode, as well as for organizations, managers, and consultants concerned with developing the leadership capabilities of others.Other moderators of the likelihood and utility of leaders being in learning mode are also discussed.

To summarize, we aim to offer fresh and useful answers to the following three questions in the leadership development liter-ature. First, what prompts how actively and wholeheartedly leaders engage with different aspects of learning from their leader-ship experiences? Second and more specifically, how might mindset dynamics manifest in the leadership development domain,activate prevailing motives, and thereby affect how leaders undertake each aspect of the experiential learning process? Third,what conceptually-driven interventions could facilitate leaders being in learning mode and thereby learn more from their leader-ship experiences? Insights on these issues could have important implications for efficiently enabling experiential leadershipdevelopment.

We proceed by outlining the nature of mindsets, as well as the range of factors that can cue leaders' mindsets and thus guidewhether they are in learning mode at a given moment in time. Next we discuss the nature of the cognitive and behavioral pro-clivities that define self-enhancement and self-improvement motives, before theorizing about the mechanisms whereby these mo-tives may stem from a leader's prevailing mindset and affect how they approach each facet of the experiential learning process.These mediators, as well as a range of temporal and other boundary conditions we identify, may guide future research on the roleof being in learning mode in enabling leaders to proactively learn from their experiences. We then discuss implications for theoryon experiential learning (Ashford & DeRue, 2012), mindsets (Dweck, 1999, 2012), and self-enhancement during decision-making(Jordan & Audia, 2012). We also outline potential micro, meso, and macro level practical implications for those interested in de-veloping the leadership of themselves or others, as well as some potential implications for management education and craftinggrowth-oriented learning environments.

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Mindsets are beliefs people hold about the plasticity of the personal attributes that guide their behavior and performance, suchas intelligence, personality, and leadership abilities. An entity implicit theory (Dweck, 1986), more intuitively relabeled by Dweck(2006) as a fixed mindset, represents the assumption that such personal attributes are essentially carved in stone and that littlecan be done to change them. Leaders holding a fixed mindset say to themselves things like “I'm not cut out for this.” Dweck(1999) theorized that people can simultaneously hold distinct mindsets regarding their capabilities in different domains (e.g., re-garding their financial, strategic, or coaching abilities). Holding a fixed mindset about their negotiation abilities, for instance, isindicated by the extent of agreement with statements such as: “Good negotiators are born that way,” and “Everyone is a certainkind of negotiator and there is not much that can be done to really change that” (Kray & Haselhuhn, 2007, p. 64).

In contrast, an incremental implicit theory (Dweck, 1986), more readily known as a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006), embodiesthe assumption that personal attributes can be cultivated through concerted efforts to do so. A growth mindset about negotiationabilities, for example, is indicated by agreement with statements such as “All people can change even their most basic negotiationqualities,” and “In negotiations, experience is a great teacher” (Kray & Haselhuhn, 2007, p. 64). Mindsets occur on a continuumbetween the fixed and growth prototypes (Burnette et al., 2013) and there are several validated scales to measure a person's pre-vailing mindset (e.g., Kray & Haselhuhn, 2007; Dweck, 1999).

The core of mindset theory (Dweck, 1986, 1999, 2012) is the axiom that mindsets provide a mental framework that guideshow people think, feel, and act in challenging achievement situations, especially when setbacks are encountered. Decades of re-search in educational, social, and organizational psychology have revealed the self-regulatory implications of mindsets (cf.Burnette et al., 2013; Dweck, 1999, 2012; Heslin, 2010). In brief, during instances when people hold a fixed mindset, they tendto view successful performances as reflecting inherent giftedness, while poor performance is construed as indicating a lack of nat-ural ability to perform well in that particular domain. Fixed mindsets make levels of (in)ability seem more salient and central tothe essence of who people are, thereby leading them to avoid challenges that might underscore their presumably inherent talentlimitations (Hong, Chiu, Dweck, Lin, & Wan, 1999). The prospect of high, persistent effort to nurture one's abilities and improveperformance is thus seen as essentially futile (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007). Holding a fixed mindset similarly under-mines the perceived value of corrective feedback (Mangels, Butterfield, Lamb, Good, & Dweck, 2006) and opportunities to learnfrom the successful performance of others (Nussbaum & Dweck, 2008).

By contrast, when people hold a growth mindset they are inclined to perceive their performance outcomes as largely reflectingthe quality of the strategies they used and/or effort they deployed, rather than their level of talent. Even in instances when en-countering setbacks and failing is a real possibility, holding a growth mindset primes people to view challenges as opportunitiesfrom which they may learn (Hong et al., 1999). Concerted effort is perceived as instrumental for improving performance(Blackwell et al., 2007; Mueller & Dweck, 1998), rather than an indication of not being particularly talented in a specific area. In-stead of viewing corrective feedback as evidence of inherent shortcomings, feedback is construed as useful information about howto improve one's performance capabilities (Mangels et al., 2006). Like corrective feedback, setbacks are seen as revealing what onemight do differently (Mueller & Dweck, 1998) and as a cue to learn from superior performers (Nussbaum & Dweck, 2008). Whilean extreme growth mindset conceivably prompts people to over-estimate their capacity to develop particular skills, as we discussin more detail later in this article, meta-analytic research (Burnette et al., 2013) has established that compared to a fixed mindset,the developmental focus of a growth mindset consistently leads people to exhibit higher performance in challenging achievementsituations. Such findings provide the prime empirical foundation for us theorizing about how leaders being in learning mode willfacilitate their experiential leadership development.

To clarify the nature of mindsets, it can be useful to consider how they relate to ostensibly similar concepts such as attribu-tional biases, locus of control, self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-regulatory style, and goal orientations. In terms of Weiner's (1985)attribution theory, mindsets relate to the relative controllability of an internal locus of control. Empirically, fixed mindsets predictattributions to static, innate capabilities (e.g., IQ, mechanical aptitude), while growth mindsets cue attributing behavior to abroader range of internal and situational causes (Levy & Dweck, 1998). In contrast to how mindsets are assumptions about theplasticity of abilities, self-esteem reflects an overall evaluation of one's self-worth that is typically uncorrelated with mindsets(Niiya, Crocker, & Bartmess, 2004).

Unlike self-efficacy, which refers to an individual's belief in his or her capability to successfully accomplish a given task(Bandura, 1986), mindsets reflect assumptions about the nature of the dispositional basis of capabilities (i.e., either an endowedor cultivated ability). Such assumptions affect the durability of high self-efficacy when setbacks are encountered, such that holdinga growth mindset insulates self-efficacy from being diminished (Wood & Bandura, 1989). Self-regulatory style is also conceptuallydistinct from mindsets insofar as the hallmark of a promotion- and prevention-focus are a prime concern with positive and neg-ative outcomes, respectively (Higgins & Spiegel, 2004), rather than assumptions regarding the plasticity of the focal actor's abili-ties. Finally, research suggests that a performance goal orientation stems from a fixed mindset, whereas a growth mindset cuesthe setting of learning goals that are indicative of a learning goal orientation (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Kray & Haselhuhn,2007). Fixed and growth mindsets can thus be thought of as “activating” a performance or learning orientation, respectively.Given the vast and expanding array of three- (e.g., Elliot, 1999; Button, Mathieu, & Zajac, 1996; VandeWalle, 1997), four- (e.g.,Elliot & McGregor, 2001; Pieterse, Van Knippenberg, & Van Dierendonck, 2013), and six-dimensional (e.g., Elliot, Murayama, &Pekrun, 2011; Mascret, Elliot, & Cury, 2015) goal orientation models, together with the issues involved in interpreting the rela-tionships between different goal orientations (DeShon & Gillespie, 2005), we focus our theorizing on the relatively more parsimo-nious concepts of mindsets (Dweck, 1986, 1999, 2012) and motives (Jordan & Audia, 2012).

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Dweck, Chiu, and Hong (1995) conceptualized mindsets as relatively stable yet still malleable and amenable to being cued,similarly to optimism (Scheier & Carver, 1985), need for achievement (McClelland & Winter, 1969), and hope (Snyder, 1994).Consistent with this conceptualization, Heslin and colleagues (Heslin, Latham, & VandeWalle, 2005; Heslin, VandeWalle, &Latham, 2006) reported that the performance appraisal and coaching behavior managers exhibit is predicted by both their mea-sured chronic mindset, as well as their experimentally induced mindset. Given that mindsets exist on a continuum, rather than thedichotomy with which they are most readily discussed (cf. Dweck, 2006), we next outline a range of cues that can nudge aleader's mindset about a focal ability back and forth along the continuum between the fixed and growth prototypes.

Mindset cues

Mindset cues can prompt leaders to focus on either the presumably established and rigid nature of their abilities, or the extentto which they can be cultivated. Mindset cues may emanate from sources including scientific testimonials (Kray & Haselhuhn,2007), signals about mindset cultures (Murphy & Dweck, 2010), how tasks are framed (Wood & Bandura, 1989), the construalof failure (Haimovitz & Dweck, 2016), attributions for success (Mueller & Dweck, 1998), the focus of personal reflection and ad-vocacy (Heslin et al., 2005), as well as the nature of self-talk that leaders engage in (cf. Heslin & Keating, in press). Each of thesecues may prompt leaders to hold more of a growth or fixed mindset regarding requisite abilities for the task at hand, along withwhether they thereby enter, remain, or drift out of being in learning mode. Table 1 summarizes these types of mindset cues, asdiscussed below.

Scientific testimonials

Perhaps the most widely used experimental method of manipulating mindsets is to assign participants to read a scientific tes-timonial asserting that human abilities are essentially either fixed or malleable. For example, the fixed mindset scientific testimo-nial developed by Kray and Haselhuhn (2007, p. 53) was titled “Negotiation ability, like plaster, is pretty stable over time.” Itdeclared that: “While it used to be believed that negotiating ability was a bundle of potentialities, each of which could be devel-oped, experts in the field now believe that people possess a finite set of rather fixed negotiating skills,” and “In most of us, by theage of ten, our negotiation ability has set like plaster and will never soften again.” Kray and Haselhuhn's growth mindset-inducingarticle – titled “Negotiation ability is changeable and can be developed” – stated that: “While it used to be believed that negoti-ating was a fixed skill that people were either born with or not, experts in the field now believe that negotiating is a dynamic skillthat can be cultivated and developed over a lifetime” (p. 53). Such statements are typically accompanied by anecdotes about in-dividuals who substantially developed initially meager abilities, as well as compelling metaphors such as the notion that the brainis like a muscle that gets stronger when it is exercised (Blackwell et al., 2007).

Mindset cultures

Shared assumptions about the malleability of human attributes may foster or impede leaders adopting a growth mindset.Murphy and Dweck (2010) proposed that shared fixed mindset assumptions can create a culture of genius. Indicators may includepeople striving to exhibit their “smarts,” outperform others, and focus on discerning and differentiating the A-players from thedead wood. Bravado, validation-seeking, and defensiveness, rather than openness to learn from challenging experiences, is likelyto result. Within a culture of growth (Murphy & Dweck, 2010), intellectual status competitions are less common and sharedgrowth mindsets manifest via initiatives to create space, time, processes, and other resources to enable real learning and devel-opment. Such a culture is likely to facilitate leaders holding a growth mindset and thus being in learning mode.

Table 1Examples of messages that serve as fixed and growth mindset cues.

Cue type Fixed mindset cue Growth mindset cue


Intelligence is essentially set in stoneHigh performance reflects innate giftedness

The brain is malleable like a muscleHigh performance reflects the extent to which abilities have been cultivated

Shared mindsets Of course intelligence is largely hereditary — youeither have it or you don't

Of course intelligence can be increased through working hard in an intellectuallystimulating environment

Task framing How I perform on this project will diagnose mylevel of leadership talent

How I perform on this project may develop my level of leadership talent

Construal of failure A potentially debilitating cause for doubt in one'sability

A possibly frustrating opportunity to learn

Attributions forsuccess

Successes reflect traits, such as being smart orgifted in a particular area

Successes reflect the initiatives undertaken, such as working hard and/ordeveloping effective strategies

Personal reflectionand advocacy

It is useful to reflect on my inherent strengths andweaknessesOthers can profit from identifying and focusing ontheir strengths and weaknesses

It is useful to reflect on how I cultivated abilities that I previously did not possessMy growth mindset can be primed by persuading others that their abilities can bedeveloped through targeted and sustained effort

Self-talk I′m too old for thisI′m not cut out for this

I need to work at this more if I am to master itThis is something I have not yet learned to do

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Task framing

Any activity can be assigned a multitude of meanings with differing motivational consequences. Wood and Bandura (1989)induced fixed mindsets by informing half of their MBA student participants that the complex decision making task they wereabout to undertake would gauge the essentially stable, inherent cognitive capacities that underlie their managerial decision mak-ing ability. The other participants had growth mindsets induced by being informed that the decision-making skills needed for thetask at hand are developed through practice, such that “in acquiring a new skill, people do not begin with faultless performance.However, the more they practice making decisions the more capable they become” (Wood & Bandura, 1989, p. 410).

Construal of failure

Research has established that although parents' mindsets do not predict their children's mindsets, whether parents construefailures as aversive or as an opportunity to learn can instill a fixed or growth mindset in their children, respectively. Haimovitzand Dweck (2016) observed that children are more likely to hold a fixed mindset when their parents view failure as a debilitatingexperience, express doubt about their child's ability, and/or comfort them for not having enough ability. By contrast, children aremore likely to hold a growth mindset when their parents perceive their failures as enabling learning and development, exempli-fied by discussing how their child might improve and expressing high expectations about future performance. Such research sug-gests that the way leaders construe and respond to setbacks could affect their followers' mindsets, though research is needed toexplore this possibility.

Attributions for success

Attribution theory and research (cf. Weiner, 1985) highlights the motivational impact of the type of explanation used to ac-count for performance outcomes. Drawing on this paradigm, Mueller and Dweck (1998) demonstrated that attributing strong per-formances to “being smart” cued fixed mindsets, while attributing them to “working hard” cued growth mindsets. Participantscued to hold fixed mindsets subsequently preferred to work on tasks upon which they could easily perform well, rather thanmore difficult tasks on which they might struggle though would likely learn something in the process. What followed beinggiven a more challenging task was less task persistence, less task enjoyment, lower performance, lying about their level of perfor-mance, and making more attributions to having low intellectual ability (e.g., “I'm not smart enough”; Mueller & Dweck, 1998, p.36), compared to those who were praised for the effort they had exerted and were thereby primed to hold a growth mindset.

As depicted in Table 1, growth mindsets can thus be elicited by praising what leaders did to perform well – such as questiontheir assumptions, develop effective strategies, and work hard – as opposed to praising what they supposedly are by brandingthem as “smart,” “brilliant,” or “a gifted leader.” Such labels are often cherished, so may make leaders reluctant to take on chal-lenging, risky developmental opportunities that could yield results that call their validity into question.

Personal reflection and advocacy

An experiment by Heslin et al. (2005) induced growth mindsets among Executive MBA students that lasted at least six weeksthrough a combination of initiatives including scientific testimonial, personal reflection, and advocacy regarding how abilities canbe developed. Personal reflection was cued with questions such as: “What is an area in which you once had low ability, but nowperform quite well? How were you able to make this change?” Heslin and colleagues applied the principle of advocacy by havingparticipants write an email offering advice to a struggling hypothetical protégé about how abilities can be developed — includinganecdotes about how they have personally dealt with developmental challenges. In contrast, participants held more fixedmindsets after they completed parallel exercises that instead focused on the strengths-based notion that people have multipleabilities with strengths and weaknesses in different areas.


Leaders' goals, effort, and persistence are significantly affected not only by the verbal persuasion they receive from other peo-ple, but also from themselves (Bandura, 1986). In the context of job search, Heslin and Keating (in press) discuss how fixedmindsets can be cued by self-talk that focuses on how one's abilities are presumably limited and will be formally assessed duringthe job search process. Examples include: “I know what I am capable of doing — you can't teach an old dog new tricks,” and“Some people just have more innate talent than others at securing a good job.” Examples of more enabling, growth-mindedself-talk identified by Heslin and Keating include: “I enjoy opportunities to develop my skills — with concerted effort, I can im-prove at virtually anything,” and “I am going to keep learning and preparing myself to secure the right role for me.” Withminor modification, such comments may readily illustrate fixed and growth-minded self-talk when setbacks are encountered dur-ing experiential leadership development. Indeed, in order to coax themselves to enter or remain in learning mode, leaders maylearn to consciously recognize and replace instances of fixed-oriented self-talk with more growth-oriented alternatives, thoughresearch is needed on this possibility.

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Interactions between cues

It is noteworthy that mindset cues can emanate from either oneself (e.g., personal reflection, advocacy, and self-talk), fromother people (e.g., scientific testimonials, mindset cultures, and construal of failure), or from both (e.g., task framing and attribu-tions for success). Regardless of their source, the assumptions embodied by a leader's prevailing mindset is likely to be a functionof whatever combination of cues is most salient at a given moment in time (Dweck, 1999, 2012). Akin to a force field analysis(Lewin, 1939), we propose that leaders' prevailing mindsets – and thus whether they are in learning mode – results from the con-fluence of cues driving them towards or away from holding a growth mindset in a particular instance.

Social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986) underscores how beliefs about oneself can guide inclinations to think and act in cer-tain ways. Mindsets are merely assumptions about the plasticity of one's abilities, though they prime a range of the cognitive andbehavioral inclinations (cf. Burnette et al., 2013; Dweck, 2012; Keating & Heslin, 2015) that are relevant to how leaders approach,engage with, and learn from their leadership challenges. Next we outline how self-enhancement and self-improvement motivesencapsulate these inclinations and thus enable a parsimonious explanation for how mindset cues and resultant mindsets maymanifest in how leaders undertake experiential learning.

Self-enhancement and self-improvement motives

Jordan and Audia (2012) theorized about what influences how decision makers assess and respond to their performance thatfalls short of their aspirations. According to this model, when managers' self-improvement motive is activated, their desire to im-prove leads them to use feedback to identify performance shortcomings that in turn spur a search for more viable strategies, aswell as changes in approach that often entail some level of personal risk. Alternatively, when managers' self-enhancement motive isactivated, their compelling psychological drive to see themselves in a positive light can lead them to retrospectively revise theirgoals and reframe any negative feedback they receive to make it seem as though they acted more competently than feedback in-dicates is actually the case, thereby bolstering their self-image.

Self-enhancement motives are activated and accentuated when people perceive a threat to their self-image (Fiske, 2004).When their tasks are familiar and feedback is positive, people do not need distorted perceptions to form or sustain a favorableevaluation of themselves. In contrast, when embarking on a potentially threatening challenge that requires skills that are yet tobe developed, when experimenting with new approaches, or after suffering a setback, a concern with maintaining a positiveself-image may activate the defensive tendency to self-enhance. Hallmarks of doing so include taking credit for successes andfinding external excuses for failures, invoking downward counterfactuals that underscore how performance could have beenworse, and selectively attending to positive indicators and ignoring negative indicators of one's performance (Jordan & Audia,2012).

Self-improvement motives are elicited by contexts in which people believe that they will not be penalized or disparaged formaking mistakes in the service of learning (Edmondson, 1999), as well as believing that abilities can be cultivated and setbacksare just an inevitable part of the learning process (Dweck, 1999).1 A self-improvement motive is illustrated by working througheach phase of the experimental learning cycle in the manner advocated by Ashford and DeRue (2012) and depicted in the outercircle of Fig. 1. We extend Jordan and Audia's (2012) theorizing on mindsets and motives during managerial decision-making tosuggest how mindsets activate the specific motives with which leaders engage in each facet of the experiential learning process.Focusing on mindsets – that can be cued by the range of factors outlined in Table 1 – enables both a within-person perspectiveregarding when people will be more or less mindfully engaged in experiential learning, as well as understanding how they mightbe encouraged to systematically undertake each phase of the experiential learning process.

Mindsets and motives during the experiential learning process

In this section, we theorize about how a leader's prevailing mindset can manifest in how s/he frames and tackles each phase ofthe experiential learning process with a predominantly risk averse, defensive self-enhancement motive, or a more courageous andopen-minded self-improvement motive, as illustrated in Table 2. We also explain how these motives may influence the extent towhich leaders learn from their leadership experiences.

Approach phase

According to Ashford and DeRue's (2012) experiential learning process, two important steps in approaching leadership devel-opment opportunities are to commit to a learning mindset by adopting a learning orientation and establishing learning goals (seeFig. 1). Next we describe how being in learning mode may play a pivotal role in how leaders go about doing so.

1 Self-enhancement cues identified by Jordan and Audia (2012), which lie beyond the scope of our theorizing about the role of mindsets in experiential leadershipdevelopment, include narcissism, accountability to audiences who can influence one's future, accountability to audiences who are focused on outcomes, greater taskcomplexity, greater informational power, as well as opportunities to portray performance positively. Later we discuss how such factors may be integrated into futureresearch on leaders being in learning mode.

Table 2Foci of self-enhancement and self-improvement motives during each phase of the experiential learning process.

Phase and elements Self-enhancement motive Self-improvement motive

Approach: commit to a learning mindset→ Embrace a learn-

ing orientationFocus on affirming existing leadership strengths Focus on understanding and developing areas most in need of improvementAvoid challenging, risky development opportunities Seek challenging, risky development opportunities

→ Set learning goals Set such vague, readily attainable learning goals thatoutcomes are unlikely to be threatening

Set such specific, challenging learning goals that positive outcomes arenot assured

Action: create and capitalize on learning opportunities→ Plan and engage

in experimentsEstablish vague indicators of experiment outcomes Establish specific indicators of experiment outcomesEngaging in ad hoc experimentation Systematically experiment with alternative approaches

→ Engage in feed-back seeking

Seek mostly positive, validating feedback Seek feedback about strengths and areas that could be improvedDistort and discount feedback, discredit source offeedback, and/or avoid risky challenges

Take responsibility for one's performance and strive to understand whatfeedback suggests about how to improve

→ Regulate disrup-tive emotions

Be anxious and worry when setbacks are encountered Maintain relative equanimity when setbacks are encounteredBecome distracted when disappointed Stay focused when disappointed

Reflection: capture the lessons of experience→ Diagnose

cause-and-effectTake credit for successes and attribute shortcomings touncontrollable, external factors

Explore the role played by oneself, others, as well as external factors inthe outcomes attained

→ Considercounterfactuals

Consider how things could have gone worse Consider how things could have gone betterFeel diminished by other leaders' achievements Feel inspired by other leaders' achievements

→ Distill lessonslearned

Document successes and “safe” areas for improvement Document successes and areas where improvements could make thebiggest positive difference to future performance

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Mindsets and learning orientationLeaders aiming to acquire mastery of particular competencies, businesses, technologies, or industries is evidence of a learning

orientation. The self-improvement motive associated with a learning orientation may be readily undermined, however, by a fixedmindset presumption that one's abilities are essentially carved in stone. Occasions to develop new competencies are thereby per-ceived as threatening situations that might expose inherent weaknesses, thus prompting a self-enhancement motive to avoiddrawing attention to such deficiencies. Leaders may thus just go through the motions of appearing committed to learning,while they largely strive to affirm their established leadership strengths and capabilities. By contrast, a growth mindset inclinesleaders to exhibit a self-improvement focus by boldly setting and being resolutely committed to attaining challenging develop-mental goals (Heslin, VandeWalle, & Carson, 2009), as manifest by working hard to develop the competencies they need —even if doing so risks feeling and/or appearing incompetent in the process.

Even within an elective MBA class that students presumably chose to undertake in order to develop some targeted capabilities,mindsets and motives appear to play a significant role in how people approach their learning opportunities. Kray and Haselhuhn(2007) demonstrated that holding a fixed mindset inclines people to prefer a negotiation task that enables them to demonstratewhat they can do, rather than a more challenging task on which they would probably make some mistakes, though also learnsomething new. As hypothesized, those who held a growth mindset preferred the second type of task, learned more, and attainedsuperior negotiation outcomes, as well as class grades. By reducing concerns about what mistakes could indicate about their talentor giftedness, we propose that holding a growth mindset will prompt leaders to approach their challenges with more of a self-improvement than self-enhancement motive, and thereby learn more from them.

Mindsets and learning goalsEven though outcome goals can motivate people to achieve high performance, in situations where leaders lack the requisite

effectiveness, it is often more prudent to set learning goals (Brett & VandeWalle, 1999). Given that leadership is an inherently so-cial endeavor wherein manifest extraversion often predicts performance (Bono & Judge, 2004; see Grant, Gino, and Hofmann,2011 for an exception), some leaders adopt the learning goal to develop their interpersonal confidence and competence. Althoughintroverts tend to be uncomfortable in social situations, mindsets regarding shyness can influence whether introverts adopt learn-ing goals in an attempt to master their social inhibitions. Compared to introverts who believed that there was little they could doto improve their sociability, Beer (2002) observed that when introverts held the growth mindset belief that they could developtheir interpersonal confidence and competence, they explored ways to learn how to do so. They set more specific interpersonallearning goals and subsequently experimented with proactive social strategies focused on self-improvement, by virtue of constru-ing social situations as opportunities to learn. The introverts holding a growth mindset were subsequently rated as more sociallycompetent than their introverted peers who held a fixed mindset.

Fixed mindsets and subsequent self-enhancement motives do not preclude the setting of learning goals, especially withinstrong situations like during leadership development programs or executive coaching where participants are called upon to setand report their learning goals. When fixed mindset cued self-enhancement motives overshadow self-improvement motives,however, the learning goals set may be so vague that clear evidence of their non-attainment is almost unimaginable (Jordan &Audia, 2012) — a notion supported by meta-analytic evidence that fixed mindsets are negatively correlated with setting specificlearning goals (Burnette et al., 2013).

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We thus theorize that when leaders are in learning mode, their self-improvement motive is likely to overshadow their self-en-hancement motive (see Table 2) in how they commit to a learning mindset, as depicted in Fig. 1 and the following proposition:

Proposition 1. In instances when leaders are cued to be in learning mode, they will exhibit a self-improvement motive in how theyembrace a learning orientation and set learning goals.

Action phase

Leadership innovation and excellence often have roots in leaders proactively experimenting with strategies to develop capabil-ities. As depicted in Fig. 1, when leaders are in learning mode during the action phase, their growth mindset prompts a self-im-provement motive in how they proactively plan and enact experiments, seek feedback, as well as regulate their emotions.

Mindsets when planning and enacting experimentsLeaders who are cynical about the scope for their leadership capabilities to be substantially developed are unlikely to make

major investments in this regard. By contrast, holding a growth mindset may prompt leaders to generate, refine, and implementstrategies that can facilitate attainment of their learning goals. In the music domain, Smith (2005, p. 56) identified students whoheld a growth mindset of musical ability by virtue of agreeing with statements such as: “You can always substantially change howmusically talented you are.” Compared to those holding a fixed mindset about their musical ability, music students holding agrowth mindset proactively adopted a much wider and more effective range of practice strategies, such as listening to recordingsof themselves playing, using a metronome, and listening to a recorded model.

Beyond fostering the development of different practice strategies, a growth mindset also cues judicious experimentation withstrategies for enhanced performance. Wood and Bandura (1989) found that after encountering setbacks, those with an inducedfixed mindset set lower organizational goals that would be easier to achieve. Their rattled self-efficacy resulted in the erratic ap-proaches of repeating previously unsuccessful strategies and simultaneously altering many managerial levers, subsequently creat-ing ambiguity about the effect of each on organizational performance. By contrast, those cued to hold a growth mindset setchallenging organizational goals and altered managerial levers one at a time, thereby enabling learning about the impact ofeach. By cuing leaders' focus on self-improvement, a growth mindset may thus increase the extent to which leaders methodicallyexperiment, as well as learn to identify and adopt effective strategies for enhanced performance.

Mindsets and feedback seekingBeyond experimenting with new strategies, leadership skill development is also enabled by leaders proactively soliciting infor-

mation from others about what they could do more effectively. Although seeking feedback can facilitate learning and creativity,leaders often avoid doing so out of fear that the feedback received might threaten their ego and/or reputation in the eyes of them-selves or relevant stakeholders (Ashford, Blatt, & VandeWalle, 2003).

Heslin and VandeWalle (2005) theorized that because a fixed mindset leads people to see their competence and worth asbeing on-the-line when faced with challenging or difficult situations, they may be disinclined to seek feedback about how theycould handle such situations more effectively. Consistent with this prediction, their field study found that 30% of managers' pro-active feedback seeking in such contexts was explained by the extent to which they held a growth mindset. In a subsequentstudy, Heslin and VandeWalle observed that holding a fixed mindset predicts reluctance to seek feedback after a setback by prim-ing concerns that any feedback received in this context will yield a harsh talent judgment, rather than helpful information.Growth mindsets, on the other hand, cued expectations that feedback would yield useful information, instead of a potentiallythreatening evaluative judgment of their competence.

A fixed mindset that manifests in a self-enhancement motive might thus prompt leaders to distort or discount feedback, dis-credit the source of improvement feedback, or avoid contexts where their performance might be deficient, given that holding afixed mindset elicits defensiveness when one's competence is called into question (Dweck, 1999, 2012). Leaders could thusself-handicap in ways that never allow goal discrepancies to come to light because their potentially subpar performance neveroccurs.2

Mindsets and emotion regulationChallenging assignments often involve a degree of uncertainty about whether and how they can be successfully accomplished.

Such uncertainty and impediments can be rather anxiety provoking. Through the lens of a fixed mindset, the experience or eventhe prospect of exhibiting incompetence can cue anxiety and worry about the adequacy of one's capabilities that impair learningand performance (Cury, Da Fonseca, Zahn, & Elliot, 2008). A fixed mindset about presumed inability to manage anxiety functionsas a self-fulfilling prophecy (Tamir, John, Srivastava, & Gross, 2007). Self-enhancement motives are thus likely to distract leadersfrom contemplating and diligently working through their anxiety-provoking leadership challenges, by distracting their focus tosome other arena in which they feel more successful.

Because leaders learn little when they are anxious or distracted (Carmeli, Tishler, & Edmondson, 2012), a growth mindsetabout their ability to avoid being derailed by potentially disruptive, negative emotions may help leaders stay focused on their

2 We thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting these possibilities.

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objectives in the face of inevitable frustrations and disappointments. Resulting equanimity may prevent self-improvement motivesbeing supplanted by self-enhancement motives (see Table 2) that can distract the focus from leadership tasks and developmentinitiatives. In essence, we theorize that when leaders are in learning mode, their activated self-improvement motive enables themto create and capitalize on valuable leadership development opportunities, via the mechanisms outlined in the followingproposition:

Proposition 2. In instances when leaders are cued to be in learning mode, they will exhibit a self-improvement motive in how theyplan and conduct experiments, engage in feedback seeking, and regulate their potentially disruptive emotions.

Reflection phase

The final reflection phase of the experiential learning process involves analyzing not simply what happened in a particular sit-uation, but making sense of why it occurred and what can be learned from the experience. When in learning mode, we proposethat leaders engage in the three reflection processes of diagnosing cause-and-effect, considering counterfactuals, and distilling les-sons learned with a growth mindset-enabled self-improvement motive (see Fig. 1).

Mindsets and diagnosing cause-and-effectTruly learning from experience entails engaging in causal reasoning to make sense of what really happened, as a basis for

crafting productive ways forward. Effective causal reasoning requires systematically exploring the full range of likely causes. Afixed mindset, however, tends to bias the factors considered. Successful performances are attributed to inherent giftednesswhile mediocre performances are attributed to oneself and/or others just not being made of the right stuff for the task at hand.A fixed mindset also leads to the fundamental attribution error of downplaying the role of relevant situational determinants(Levy & Dweck, 1998), such as available resources (e.g., time, financing, and coaching), as well as unexpected impediments.Such limited and biased attributions may foster self-enhancement motives to deflect any potential indictment on a leader's capa-bilities when setbacks are encountered, as well as obfuscate the merit of potential levers (e.g., adopting an alternative frame ofreference, strategy and/or being coached) for improved subsequent performance. When a growth mindset primes considerationof a broader array of potentially relevant causal factors, such avenues for remedial actions and enhanced subsequent performanceare more likely to become apparent and be pursued.

Mindsets and considering counterfactualsBeyond creating an accurate picture of what occurred, the process of reflection also involves engaging in counterfactual think-

ing by considering what if; that is, systematically musing about the paths not taken and what could have resulted from them.Mindsets may influence the type and developmental value of the information leaders are concerned with following inadequateperformance. Rather than explore potential ways to improve, holding a fixed mindset can prompt leaders to try to protecttheir ego and avoid feeling bad about their presumably inherent ability shortcomings (Dweck, 1999). This self-enhancement mo-tive results in, for instance, people conveying inflated reports about how well they performed (Mueller & Dweck, 1998) and com-paring their performance to those who performed worse than they did, in order to underscore their relative superiority(Nussbaum & Dweck, 2008). A growth mindset instead stimulates people to embark on a quest for alternative approaches to im-prove performance (Hong et al., 1999), by generating and systematically testing alternative strategies (Wood & Bandura, 1989),and learning from others who outperformed them (Nussbaum & Dweck, 2008).

Celebrated leaders such as Condoleezza Rice, Meg Whitman, and Richard Branson often discuss what they learned from otherleaders they worked for or have seen in action. The vicarious leadership learning process (Bandura, 1986) may be disrupted whena fixed mindset-induced self-enhancement motive crowds out a leader's self-improvement motive. Hoyt, Burnette, and Innella(2012) reported that after reflecting upon and writing about a personally impactful leadership role model, those who held agrowth mindset reported greater leadership self-efficacy, as well as less anxiety and depressed affect following a leadershiptask, compared to those who held a fixed mindset. Cynicism about being able to develop the leadership capabilities observedin others seems to undermine the self-improvement motive to strive to emulate them.

Mindsets and distilling the lessons learnedTo distill the lessons learned from a particular experience, leaders need to be alert to what they might have done differently to

be more effective. Cynicism about the scope for leadership abilities to be substantially developed may foster suspicion that con-certed leadership development efforts are largely a waste of time and effort.

Cognitive neurophysiological research has found that mindsets influence the extent to which people pay attention to informa-tion that could improve their performance. When completing difficult general knowledge questions, Mangels et al. (2006) foundno difference in participants' neural waveforms, as a function of their prevailing mindset, when they were informed that they hadprovided either a correct or incorrect answer. However, when participants provided an incorrect response and were then brieflyshown the correct answer, the neural activity in the inferior fronto-temporal negativity region of the brain responsible for pro-cessing semantic information (i.e., corrective feedback) was greater in those who held a growth mindset. Among those with afixed mindset, that part of the brain seemed to “power down” for a moment, until the next opportunity to satisfy their self-en-hancement motive arose via the chance to answer another question correctly. By paying greater attention to the corrective

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feedback, those with a growth mindset provided more correct answers to the questions they had initially answered incorrectlywhen subsequently re-tested. We thus theorize that being cued to hold a growth mindset initiates and sustains leaders beingin learning mode and primes their self-improvement motive to capture the lessons of experience by thinking about the causesof their sub-optimal performance, and musing about potentially more effective ways to deal with such situations (see Fig. 1and Table 2):

Proposition 3. In instances when leaders are cued to be in learning mode, they will exhibit a self-improvement motive in how theydiagnose cause-and-effect, consider counterfactuals, and distill the lessons learned.

We have proposed that whether leaders are in learning mode may distract or enable them in how they approach, act, andlearn from their challenging leadership experiences. To provide concrete guidance for applying our conceptual model, Table 3highlights some growth mindset assumptions that may cue leaders to be in learning mode during each phase of the experientiallearning process.

Mediators of being in learning mode

In theorizing about the role of mindsets in experiential leadership development, the prime mediator we have suggested is ac-tivation of a leader's self-enhancement or self-improvement motive. We have also discussed empirically-based mediators thatmay explain how mindsets guide leaders' perceptual and motivational inclinations with regard to each of the three phases ofthe experiential learning process. Specifically, during the approach phase, a growth mindset may cue truly embracing a learningorientation, as well as setting precise and challenging learning goals that might yield potentially frustrating setbacks along theway to attain them. When leaders are working through the action phase, the extent to which they hold a growth mindset canbe expected to manifest in how they plan and conduct experiments, seek improvement feedback, and regulate their potentiallydisruptive emotions. Finally, when leaders are reflecting upon their challenging experiences, a growth mindset might inclinethem to engage in effective causal reasoning, to seriously consider counterfactuals regarding “what else” they might have doneand with what consequences, as well as methodically distill the lessons learned from their challenging leadership experiences.

Moderators of being in learning mode

We have suggested that being in learning mode prompts leaders to adopt a self-improvement motive in how they cyclethrough the approach, action, and reflection phases of experiential leadership development. Such leadership development, how-ever, does not occur in a vacuum. It is thus important to consider contextual and individual factors that may amplify, suppress, orreverse the dynamics we have depicted regarding when leaders enter and remain in learning mode, as well as the consequencesof being in learning mode.

Organizational contexts perceived by leaders as psychologically meaningful and safe (Edmondson, 1999) are likely to facilitateleaders being in learning mode, relative to those contexts where leaders do not feel that mistakes or subpar performance will betolerated. In a similar vein, because working through each facet of the experiential learning cycle requires time and mental focus,we expect that job demands – such as work overload, job insecurity, and time pressure – that exhaust leaders' mental, emotional,and physical resources (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007), may undermine their capacity to enter and remain in learning mode.

Table 3Growth mindset-related assumptions during each phase of experiential learning.

Phase Examples

Approach: commit to a learningmindset

→ Leadership ability is not innately limited or carved in stone→ Leadership effectiveness can be developed, like a muscle→ Challenging developmental opportunities can rectify skill deficiencies→ Learning stems from focused work to attain specific, challenging learning goals→ Frustrating mistakes are often part of the learning process so should not be feared

Action: create and capitalize onlearning opportunities

→ Systematic experimentation with different strategies enables performance improvement→ Seeking feedback from others about areas for improvement generally yields more helpful information than

evaluative judgments→ Negative emotions are transitory and can be managed→ Frustrations and disappointments are inevitable when learning something new

Reflection: capture the lessons ofexperience

→ Outcomes usually reflect a range of situational factors (e.g., resources, political support) and personal initia-tives (e.g., effort and strategies), rather than just leadership giftedness

→ Analyzing mistakes can yield enhanced performance, rather than highlight limited leadership talent→ Disappointing results often indicate, at least in part, what one has not yet learned to do→ Counterfactual thinking about more effective people and approaches can enable learning and development→ Poor performances can usually be improved by better strategies and/or investing more effort or other

resources in relevant areas→ Discerning and documenting areas most in need of improvement can guide and enable leadership


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Proposition 4a. The more that leaders perceive organizational contexts as psychologically meaningful and safe, the more they will be inlearning mode.

Proposition 4b. The more that leaders experience high job demands, the less they will be in learning mode.

Leadership identity formation might also affect the extent to which leaders are in learning mode. In contrast to research sug-gesting that a salient leadership identity can prompt individuals to pursue leadership development opportunities (e.g., Chan &Drasgow, 2001; Day & Dragoni, 2015; Day & Sin, 2011), a strong leadership identity as a competent leader potentially underminesengagement with the experiential learning process in contexts that emphasize an imperative to consistently project confidence(e.g., Enron; McLean & Elkind, 2003). This may be especially the case when an individual with a salient leadership identity isalso cued to hold a fixed mindset about what potential setbacks might signal about his or her leadership capabilities and potential.

Proposition 4c. A strong leadership identity undermines being in learning mode, particularly in contexts where consistently projectingconfidence is highly valued.

There may be circumstances in which being in learning mode does not foster leadership development. Beyond simplyundermining being in learning mode, a strong leadership identity might substitute for the role we have posited for mindsetsand motives in experiential leadership development. More specifically, in situations when engagement in experiential leadershipdevelopment is motivated by a relatively strong, developmentally-oriented leadership identity, perhaps a leader's prevailingmindset is relatively inconsequential, compared to when a strong leadership identity is a source of cynicism about the need forfuture development. In the latter case, being in learning mode might be particularly instrumental in determining the extent ofwhole-hearted engagement with the experiential learning process and thus leadership development.

Proposition 5a. Being in learning mode is more consequential for the leadership development of those whose leadership identity is asource of cynicism about the need for future development, relative to those whose leadership identity is rooted in continually developinghis/her leadership effectiveness.

Although we have argued that a growth mindset is important for facilitating leadership development, the personal develop-ment focus associated with a strong growth mindset might prompt leaders to over-estimate their capacity to grow and adaptthemselves to highly challenging and perhaps fraught leadership roles, thereby resulting in unrealistic expectations, as well aslow person/role fit, person/environment fit, performance, and/or job satisfaction. Leadership development and performancemay also be a function of fit between a leaders' prevailing mindset and the culture of growth or genius in which that leader isworking. For example, a fixed mindset and subsequent self-enhancement motive might serve leaders well in cultures of genius,by virtue of enabling person/environment fit and thereby avoiding the frustrations and adverse career consequences that can re-sult from misfit (e.g., career derailment; McCall & Hollenbeck, 2002).

Proposition 5b. Relative to a strong growth mindset, a strong fixed mindset and subsequent self-enhancement motive serves leaderswell in cultures of genius by helping them (i) avoid unsuitable leadership challenges and (ii) attain person/environment fit.


As Aesop once observed, after all is said and done, often much more is said than done. Although most leaders routinely talkabout what they have learned from their experiences, some leaders actually do much more than others to systematically learnfrom their leadership experiences (McCall & Hollenbeck, 2002) and little is known about why (Ashford & DeRue, 2012; DeRue& Wellman, 2009). To address this overarching question, we have proposed that leaders will frame and tackle each aspect ofthe experiential learning process more courageously and less defensively when they are in learning mode.

Theoretical implications

To answer our first question about what prompts mindful engagement in experiential leadership development, we have ex-tended Ashford and DeRue's (2012) model by theorizing about how mindset cues influence leaders' mindsets and resultant mo-tives to seriously (or superficially) engage in the approach, action, and reflection phases of the experiential learning process, asdepicted in Fig. 1. In doing so, we have suggested that the extent to which a leader is in learning mode can explain why s/hemay engage in experiential learning more mindfully in some instances than others. For example, a leader who generally ap-proaches her leadership experiences with a growth mindset may be triggered to slide into more of a fixed mindset and self-en-hancement motive by working with a boss who is adamant that leadership talent is largely innate. Reduced willingness by thatleader to experiment with potentially risky avenues for leadership development can be expected to result.

We have broadened the scope of mindset theory (Dweck, 1986, 1999, 2012) by explicating how mindset dynamics manifest inthe leadership development domain, guide prevailing motives, and affect how leaders undertake each aspect of the experientiallearning process. We have thus not simply described what potentially affects experiential learning (i.e., mindsets and motives),but also how mindsets and motives may influence such learning. Unpacking the process through which mindset cues, mindsets,

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and motives may impact experiential learning will hopefully aid scholars and practitioners in developing a more nuanced under-standing of how experiential leadership learning unfolds and can be derailed, as well as facilitated.

We have also supplemented Jordan and Audia's (2012) theory about self-enhancement during managerial decision-making intwo ways. First, we have illustrated how the core of this theory can be extrapolated beyond how managers respond to disappoint-ing decision outcomes to address the way leaders undertake the broader range of approach, action, and reflection tasks involvedin experiential leadership development (Ashford & DeRue, 2012; see Fig. 1). Second, Jordan and Audia discuss how self-enhance-ment motives may be increased by the shared fixed mindsets that typify a culture of genius, as well as reduced by leaders' man-agers or mentors highlighting how their own mistakes were an inevitable part of their growth and improvement. We havesupplemented this advice by providing a much broader array of mindset cues and assumptions (see Tables 1 and 3) that couldbe considered in future theorizing, research, and interventions aimed at minimizing instances when learning and performance im-provement is compromised by leaders' self-enhancement motives overshadowing their self-improvement motives. This workmight also fruitfully consider the other potential antecedents of self-enhancement and self-improvement motives proposed byJordan and Audia, such as accountability and informational power, which lie beyond mindset cues and the scope of this article.

Valuable theories enable prediction, explanation, and behavioral change (Bandura, 1986). We have offered a theoretical ac-count of how mindsets enable the prediction and explanation of why leaders may embrace or shy away from experiential learn-ing. In doing so, we have also theorized about a range of avenues for fostering leaders' engagement with the experiential learningcycle, by both themselves and others concerned with increasing the extent to which leaders learn from their challenging leader-ship experiences. Although experiential leadership development theory and research has often focused on the relative value ofvarious experiential leadership development initiatives (e.g., DeRue et al., 2012; Dragoni et al., 2009), our focus on how such de-velopment is enabled by being in learning mode is intended to prompt further theorizing and empirical examination of the pro-cesses and levers underpinning leaders' experiential learning.

Research implications

Some leaders will inevitably work through the various facets of experiential learning more diligently than others. We have the-orized about such differences in terms of mindsets and the subsequent self-enhancement motives that may impede leaders fromsystematically learning from their challenging experiences. An important caveat is nonetheless in order. Specifically, with the ex-ception of the studies by Heslin and colleagues (e.g., Heslin et al., 2005, 2006; Heslin & VandeWalle, 2005, 2011), most of themindset studies discussed in this paper have been conducted with school or university students in an academic context. AlthoughHeslin and colleagues' research has shown that the mindset dynamics observed in students consistently generalize to managers,research is yet to directly assess the role of leaders' mindsets during experiential learning opportunities.

Research is thus needed to directly examine the extent to which leaders' prevailing mindsets and motives guide how they ap-proach, go through, and reflect on their challenging experiences in the ways we have discussed. To explore the critical issue ofwhen leaders are more or less likely to enter and remain in learning mode, research is also needed that examines and extendsthe potential boundary conditions outlined earlier. Equally imperative are studies that explore organizational and other factorsthat potentially limit the utility – for leadership development and performance – of being in learning mode. Such researchmight examine the role of both measured and induced growth mindsets in leaders' motives, engagement in each facet of expe-riential learning, and subsequent leadership development and effectiveness. Research on measured prevailing mindsets could as-sess leaders' mindsets by using or adapting established mindset measures (e.g., Kray & Haselhuhn, 2007; Dweck, 1999) toreference the particular leadership domain of interest (e.g., adapting Kray and Haselhuhn's (2007) measure to reference “inspiringothers” rather than “negotiation”). Experience sampling methodologies (cf. Hektner, Schmidt, & Csikszentmihalyi, 2007) may alsobe deployed to assess how leaders' momentary mindsets covary with other indicators of them being in learning mode. A combi-nation of self, 360 degree feedback, as well as peer and/or executive coach ratings could also be used to assess the quality ofleaders' engagement with the various experiential learning activities.

Regarding our third overarching question about what conceptually-driven initiatives might enable experiential leadership de-velopment, studies on the role of induced mindsets might usefully apply the principles outlined in validated training programs forcultivating growth mindsets (e.g., Heslin et al., 2005, 2006) and/or more momentary priming via cues to adopt or sustain agrowth mindset, such as those outlined in Table 1. The sustainability of leaders' induced growth mindsets via these different ap-proaches, as well as how they interact with other individual differences (e.g., conscientiousness and trait learning goal orienta-tion) and situational factors (e.g., being coached to hold a growth mindset or working in a culture of genius) in determiningleadership learning and outcomes, are further avenues for inquiry. The scope of growth mindset training and/or priming to sig-nificantly increase the impact of existing leadership development programs is another area in which research is needed.

Leaders inevitably interact with a variety of people, such as followers, clients, customers, and supervisors. As such, mindsetcues emanating from leaders (e.g., self-talk) are likely to interact with mindset cues emanating from others (e.g., the construalof a leader's poor results by her/his boss), and might thus expose leaders to potentially conflicting mindset messages. Giventhat there are several ways in which fixed and growth mindsets can be induced, future research could examine what influencesthe relative dominance of specific mindset cues over others. For instance, perhaps mindset cues that are most salient and persua-sive are those that come from followers with whom the leader has developed a particularly strong rapport. Alternatively, leaders'mindsets might be more influenced by cues that emanate from other leaders that they admire or respect, or particularly byleaders who have more formal rather than referent power over them.

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Perhaps leaders' susceptibility to mirroring followers' mindsets is a function of the extent to which leaders hold low ratherthan high power distance cultural values (Hofstede, 2001). More broadly, leaders who are low self-monitors might be less affectedby the mindset cues of those around them, relative to leaders who are high self-monitors (i.e., people who are dispositionally in-clined to be highly responsive to social cues; Snyder, 1974). Beyond examining how the nature of leaders' relationships, culturalvalues, and dispositions affect their receptiveness to mindset cues, research might investigate the extent to which, for example,being consistently exposed to a fixed mindset cue (e.g., followers repeatedly celebrating a leader's supposed innate giftednessas an awesome leader) induces and sustains a fixed mindset within leaders, regardless of how much that leader previouslyheld a growth mindset or how strong a “one-off” intensive growth mindset intervention might be.

Temporal considerations in experiential leadership development

Although atemporal leadership theories constitute the dominant theoretical paradigm in leadership studies (cf. Shamir, 2011;Shipp & Cole, 2015), considering and explicitly modeling the element of time in experiential leadership development may reveal amore nuanced dynamic between mindsets, motives, and engagement in the experiential learning cycle. One avenue for furthertheorizing and research is to examine when the dynamics proposed in our model might have the greatest impact on leadershipdevelopment. For example, perhaps those new to a leadership role – who have various leadership competencies to develop – willbenefit more from being in learning mode than more established leaders. Alternatively, perhaps highly-experienced leaderswhose commitment to their idiosyncratic leadership style has led to their development and indeed their career to stagnate(e.g., Hambrick & Fukutomi, 1991; McCall & Hollenbeck, 2002) will get the most out of concerted efforts to be in learningmode. Research may thus explore the potential role of leadership experience and/or style rigidity in the utility and impact ofbeing in learning mode.

Heslin et al. (2005) developed an intensive growth mindset intervention that cued managers with a fixed mindset to adopt agrowth mindset that lasted for at least six weeks. Such intensive interventions, as elaborated by Keating and Heslin (2015), maybe deployed within organizations to help leaders jettison their fixed mindset in favor of a more growth-minded alternative. Theduration with which an induced growth mindset lasts and the rate at which it potentially regresses to a leader's prior fixedmindset, however, is likely to be contingent on a range of individual and organizational factors. For instance, perhaps growthmindsets are sustained when leaders develop a leadership identity that inclines them to continually seek out development oppor-tunities (DeRue & Ashford, 2010; Chan & Drasgow, 2001). On the other hand, induced growth mindsets might rapidly decay whenleaders sense a disconnect between organizational pronouncements to support learning, yet experience little if any allocation oftime or other resources by their organization to support learning-oriented initiatives, at the potential expense of immediate per-formance. Research might examine how cues that are likely to sustain (and hamper) the durability and longevity of inducedgrowth mindsets – including though not limited to those in Table 1 – interact to determine the rate at which the impact ofgrowth mindset interventions decay.

Engaging in the experiential learning process is intended to be ongoing, rather than an isolated incident that occurs only once.However, the frequency and diligence with which leaders engage in such experiential learning will likely be influenced by theirpast successes and setbacks in working through the experiential learning process. For example, for leaders who feel like they werepunished for being open about their learning goals or for prioritizing learning as much as present performance may in future beless willing to undertake potentially risky experiential learning initiatives. Longitudinal field research might thus investigate po-tential feedback loops between past developmental experiences and leaders being in learning mode.

Practical implications

Klein and House (1995) suggested that understanding leadership development requires examining not only macro level (e.g.,shared assumptions) and micro level (e.g., individuals' perceptions and behaviors) issues, but also meso level issues that emergeat the interface between leaders and those they lead. Next we discuss potential practical implications of our theorizing – at themicro, meso, and macro levels – for leaders aiming to develop their effectiveness, as well as for organizations, managers, and con-sultants who intend to assist them in this regard. We then outline some implications for management education, as well as forcrafting a growth-oriented learning environment.

Mindsets at the micro level: leader self-development initiativesWe have argued that working to cultivate and sustain a growth mindset may enhance leaders' self-improvement motive for

learning from their challenging leadership experiences. One approach is for leaders to self-assess their mindset about a particulartype of leadership challenge (e.g., fostering engagement, diversity management, or leading a merger). Upon identifying areas inwhich they have a relatively fixed mindset, a next step is to create or identify growth mindset mantras – such as those inTable 3 – that resonate with regard to the focal challenge(s). Such mantras may be usefully posted up in places where theywill be seen often, to help reinforce growth-minded self-talk in themselves and others. Another self-development initiative isfor leaders to write a letter to a close friend, relative, or protégé to convince that person that holding a growth mindset can enablehim/her to realize a valued aspiration (Heslin et al., 2005). Discussing the applications and outcomes of such growth mindsetcuing strategies with others, such as with a peer coach or during a growth mindset workshop, might further increase the ease,extent, and frequency with which leaders are in learning mode. Finally, we have anecdotally observed that when leaders are

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familiar with the concept of being in learning mode, simply asking themselves “Am I in learning mode right now?” can cue theirself-improvement motive.

Mindsets at the meso level: leaders as sources of mindsetsThose who lead leaders may intentionally or otherwise foster fixed or growth mindsets through both what they say and do

(Bandura, 1986). Clues regarding the mindset that leaders verbally exhibit and role model may be gleaned via self-assessment,as well as from assessments by others with whom they work. Expressions of a fixed mindset may be replaced by moregrowth-oriented alternatives by, for example: (i) attributing others' progress and successes to their strategies and efforts, ratherthan to their brilliance or talent (Mueller & Dweck, 1998), and (ii) by framing team members' areas for development as skills theyhave not yet mastered (Dweck, 1999). Doing so can convey the assumption that development is possible and stimulate thought,discussion, and action aimed at making it happen.

Behavioral role modeling of mindsets may occur by how leaders approach people management tasks. When selecting people, acritical question is whether to target potential employees who have demonstrated that they can readily perform a given role ef-fectively, or those who might learn the most from growing into it. Fixed mindset cynicism about people's capacity to developcould make leaders disinclined to adopt the latter, strategic approach to talent selection and staffing (cf. McCall & Hollenbeck,2002).

When appraising performance, fixed mindsets might also be cultivated by a focus on identifying and celebrating “star per-formers,” as well as using pejorative labels when referring to those who have exhibited instances of poor performance. Althoughleading and evaluating others often involves making and implementing tough decisions, leaders who refrain from labeling theiremployees (negatively or positively) and supplement their appraisal judgments with a strong focus on developing their direct re-ports – such as by conducting a feed-forward interview about their development goals and how they could be attained(Budworth, Latham, & Manroop, 2015) – likely send a growth mindset message about the value of direct reports working to cul-tivate and realize their potential.

Mindsets at the macro level: mindset culturesThe shared fixed or growth mindsets embodied within cultures of genius or growth (Murphy & Dweck, 2010) may stem from

and influence various human resource practices. For instance, when selecting new leaders or team members, a culture of geniuscan spawn substantial investments in psychometric testing of intelligence and personality traits, as well as elaborate assessmentcenters aimed at identifying the most gifted and “right” leaders to get and keep “on the bus,” as well as the “wrong” leaders toswiftly get “off the bus” (Collins, 2001, p. 13). In contrast to this focus on labeling and sorting, cultures of growth place relativelygreater emphasis on employee training and development. Relatedly, a preference for promoting people from within the organiza-tion who may grow into their new role, relative to selecting new hires from the external labor market who have performed asimilar role elsewhere, may send powerful signals about the scope for leaders and others to grow and develop within the orga-nization. Given the range of human resource practices that may be imbued with fixed or growth mindset messages, conducting anaudit of mindset cues at the macro level may facilitate tweaking and even adapting human resource management practices inlight of their mindset implications in order to support leaders (and other employees) in learning from their experiences (cf.Reichard & Johnson, 2011).

Mindsets within management educationLeadership development is a core objective of many MBA programs. Our theorizing provides a basis for identifying, critiquing,

and striving to address how mindset cues could undermine the attainment of this objective. For instance, business school rank-ings, such as those conducted by U.S. News & World Report, place a significant weighting on the mean Graduate Management Ad-mission Test (GMAT) score of incoming students. Websites such as http://poetsandquants.com annually document the schoolswith the largest year-on-year increases and decreases in mean GMAT scores.3 This website also showcases the 100 “best andbrightest MBAs in the class” of each year. This emphasis on “smarts” is reinforced when business school deans routinely welcomeincoming MBA classes by complimenting them on how their mean GMAT scores indicate that they are the “best and brightest.”Such an emphasis on intelligence potentially fosters a status-oriented culture of genius within MBA programs, especially whenstudents' academic standing relative to their peers is often brought into sharp relief by, for instance, dean's lists, honor roles,and forced distributions that limit the number or proportion of those recognized as an “A student.”

Public and continual differentiation between those who do and do not “win” in the constant stream of status competitionswithin MBA programs may function as powerful mindset cues that elicit self-enhancement motives to “win” no matter what ittakes, potentially at the expense of the self-improvement motives that play a pivotal role in learning. For example, fixed mindsetcues can prompt self-enhancement motives and erode honesty, and make people 350% more likely to lie about their test scoresthan those exposed to growth mindset cues (Mueller & Dweck, 1998). Yet honesty and authenticity are essential ingredients foreffective leadership (Palanski & Yammarino, 2009) and leadership development (Avolio & Gardner, 2005), as leaders learn littlefrom disappointing results that they distort (Ashford & DeRue, 2012). Although differentiating between students is unavoidableand not necessarily antithetical to learning and development, our theorizing highlights the potential unintended impact offixed mindset cues conveyed by business school marketing, recruitment, selection, socialization, recognition and award practices,

3 http://poetsandquants.com/2016/03/29/average-gmat-scores-top-50-business-schools/ downloaded July 6, 2016

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as well as those that stem from MBA assessment task design, feedback, and grading protocols. Research is needed to explore thesepossibilities and their potential adverse impact on leadership development within MBA programs.

Crafting a growth mindset environmentBeyond identifying fixed mindset cues that can impede leadership development in MBA classrooms, those who manage and/or

teach (future) leaders can take steps to craft a growth-oriented environment that empowers students to continually develop theirleadership potential. One way instructors may do so is to have students identify or create growth mindset mantras they find in-spiring, such as “It's always possible to improve,” “You have only failed if you have given up,” and “Success at anything comesdown to focus and effort; and I can control both!” Such messages might be supplemented with anecdotes and videos that high-light the plasticity of the human brain that, like a muscle, can develop new skills and connections the more it is exercised, or in-spirational movies that illustrate success after persisting through considerable setbacks and adversity.

Instructors may also refine their approach to giving feedback so that it emphasizes the process of having worked systematical-ly and with persistence, rather than even subtley celebrating or criticizing a student's innate talent (Mueller & Dweck, 1998). Forinstance, praising people for the sustained effort they exerted in overcoming a leadership challenge, instead of praising their in-herent leadership ability, is likely to reinforce the growth mindset assumption that performance is the result of what they did rath-er than who they are. Finally, instructors can talk about what they are presently trying to learn and some of the difficulties theyhave personally encountered in order to model continuous professional and/or personal development.


As Day et al. (2014, p. 79) noted, “Leadership is something that all organizations care about. But what most interests them isnot which leadership theory or model is ‘right’ (which may never be settled definitively), but how to develop leaders and lead-ership as effectively and efficiently as possible.” We have theorized that experiential leadership development may be facilitated byleaders being in learning mode, defined as them purposefully framing and pursuing each element of the experiential learning pro-cess with more of a growth than a fixed mindset. As a simple assumption about plasticity and fixedness, mindsets are obviouslyno panacea for dealing with the immense challenges of leadership development. The nature of a leader's prevailing mindset none-theless sets the stage for motives to approach developmental challenges in a cynical, defensive, self-enhancing manner, or alter-natively in a way that is open-minded, systematic, and determined to learn. Future research and interventions will hopefullyempirically examine, refine, and expand our theorizing to better understand what enables experiential leadership development.Results of this research will illuminate whether leaders' mindsets and motives do indeed represent conceptually-derived andpractically useful levers for enabling leaders to learn more from their challenging leadership experiences.


The authors are grateful for the helpful insights provided by Benjamin Walker, Daniel Turban, Mateus Heslin, Mel Fugate,Michael Cole, and three anonymous reviewers during the development of this paper.


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