The Four Mindsets That Cause Leaders To Self-Sabotage*

When I first learned to ski, I fell — a lot. Then the time came when I didn’t fall. I picked up speed, had control, and felt good. But it seemed too easy and even fun. I didn’t feel right, and so I fell. Falling felt normal. I was so accustomed to thinking, “I can’t ski,” that when I could, I didn’t know how to handle it.

Your Success Thermostat

Everyone has a “success thermostat.” This thermostat is set to a temperature that is a composite of what you think you deserve and what you can manage. This directly impacts how well and how far we lead. If life starts to cool down below our internal setting of what we believe we deserve and can manage, we hustle to heat life back up again. However, if things heat up beyond our normal “settings,” most leaders will begin to back off from what made them successful or even sabotage their own success.

Organizational Growth And Mindset

Growth trajectories don’t look like smooth curves. They usually look like stair steps. At the bottom of each step is a leader who either sees the next step as a wall or as an opportunity to grow to the next level.

What you see is determined by mindset. That determines the future you can create and sustain. Leaders aren’t stopped by a lack of opportunity — opportunities can be created. They are stopped, usually, by their mindset.

The Four Mindsets That Cause Leaders To Self-Sabotage

• Fixed: In defining a “fixed” mindset, Psychologist Carol Dweck explains: “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success — without effort.”

When a leader with a fixed mindset hits a limit, instead of asking, “How do I get around this?” They say, “I guess this is as far as I/we can go.”

This same leader views others with a fixed mindset. It’s difficult to encourage and coach others to higher success if they interpret someone else’s challenges as “They’ve hit their limits — they’ve got nothing else to offer.”

• Scarcity: Researcher and Yale instructor Laura Freebairn-Smith found that leaders with an abundance perspective see the world as having sufficient resources for everyone and that power is shareable.

Leaders with a scarcity perspective, on the other hand, tend to lead through fear and control. They tend to believe that resources are limited. They are often motivated by the fear of not gaining what they want or the fear of losing what they have.

Abundance leaders tend to have loyal teams with high morale. They are better at resolving conflict, communicating, and creating healthy team dynamics. Scarcity leaders tend to decrease team morale and energy. They are poorer communicators and delegators. Their teams tend to not want to work with them.

• Self-Worth: Many leaders determine their self-worth through a comparative lens: “I’m valuable when I’m as good or better than the Joneses.”

The problem with establishing your value through comparisons is that there is always someone who appears to be doing better than yourself. Author and psychotherapist Amy Morin says, “The way you choose to measure your worth as a person will serve as a major factor in the choices you make, the thoughts you have about life, and the way you feel about yourself.”

Poor self-worth is an enormous driver for many people. But it creates behaviors that work against a leader. It can lead to overly risky or overly guarded choices, holding others back, or jealousy. None of these behaviors or mindsets tend to lead toward the best kind of thinking or decision making. From confidence comes the belief that you have intrinsic value and that you bring value to others.

• External Locus Of Control: Psychologist Julian B. Rotter defines someone with an internal locus of control as believing success or failure is dependent on their choices. Someone with an external locus of control believes that external forces determine their success or failure.

To a certain point, leaders tend to have an internal locus of control. However, this internal sense of control is often limited to situations they choose or are familiar with. Fast growth or change can cause leaders to have to navigate unfamiliar terrain. This can shake their belief that they can act.

Many leaders who seem enormously confident and “in control” find it difficult to decide or act when they need to consider topics such as their exit or succession, a significant market or technology change, or internal team conflict. They demonstrate behaviors of avoidance, victim stance or denial, none of which allow them to successfully lead in new or challenging dynamics.

Building Success Mindsets

Ready to change your mindset? Here are three habits I’ve found to be most helpful:

1. Curate your relationships. Exposure to others over time shapes our mindset. Spend time with positive, healthy-minded people and reduce or eliminate your time with the negative-minded. Pursue professional development opportunities that attract inspiring peers. A coach might help you think and see differently in this respect.

2. Manage your media. Most news and social media provoke attention by appealing to fear, scarcity, a sense of deficiency or anger. They rarely appeal to our best selves. Limit or remove your exposure to negative media and spend more time with media that encourages you and feeds the mindset you want to build.

3. Immerse yourself in stories. We learn better with stories. Expose yourself to stories of people who think and behave the way you want to. Whether through biographies, literature, documentaries or podcasts, expose yourself to narratives you want to emulate.

A leader who chooses a healthy mindset not only expands their own potential for success but the success of everyone they lead.

Which mindset do you tend to struggle with? What are you willing to do to change?

Take good care,


Originally published at on May 4, 2021.



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