Leadership Is a Muscle

How is your attitude about your abilities affecting your success?

Leadership Is a Muscle

Bobby Fischer was playing chess at age 6. Mozart wrote his first symphony at 8. Could it be that Jack Welch was firing direct reports at 9?


There’s a long-standing debate about whether leaders are born or made. But let’s not revisit nature versus nurture. Instead, let’s ask a weirder question: Could it be that your point of view on this issue is what actually makes you a better or worse leader? And if so, is nature or nurture the more career-enhancing POV?

This psychological puzzle starts with the research of Stanford’s Carol Dweck. Her latest book, Mind-set: The New Psychology of Success, should be on every business manager’s bookshelf. Dweck has found that individuals succeed or fail based on how they think about intelligence. She says people have one of two mind-sets on the matter.

People with a fixed mind-set believe that intelligence is static. Your behavior provides a sample of your true underlying intelligence, like a taster spoon from a tub of ice cream. And because people will judge your intelligence by the samples you provide, you’ll definitely scoop out an Oreo chunk whenever you have the chance. The consequence: You’ll avoid challenges. (If you fail, others will see that as a taste of your true ability.) You’ll be threatened by negative feedback. (Isn’t your critic just claiming to be smarter than you?) You’ll exert less effort. (Really smart people don’t need to try hard.)

The second group, Dweck says, are those with a growth mind-set. These people believe intelligence can be developed, like muscles. If you’re in this camp, her research shows, you’ll test yourself more, despite the risk. (After all, if you try to bench-press more weight and fail, no one will mock you as a “born weakling.”) You’re more inclined to accept criticism–ultimately, it makes you better. You perceive hard work as the path to mastery, not as a sign of insufficient genius.

Tiger Woods is an athlete with a growth mind-set, someone who obsesses about his game and makes incremental improvements. Manny Ramirez of the Boston Red Sox appears to have a fixed mind-set, relying on his enormous natural gifts to succeed (but not as keen on things like attending spring training). All of us blend the mind-sets in our heads. We might say, “I can’t draw.” But few of us would say, “I was born without the ability to ride a bike.”


Now the puzzle deepens: Dweck has begun to explore whether we can intervene and change people’s mind-sets, and if so, will that make them more successful? Earlier this year, Dweck and two colleagues, Kali Trzesniewsi of Stanford and Lisa S. Blackwell of Columbia, ran an experiment on junior high schoolers. If they trained the students to have a growth mind-set, would the kids’ math grades improve? In less than two hours over eight weeks, they taught the students concepts such as: Your brain is like a muscle that can be developed with exercise; just as a baby gets smarter as it learns, so can you; everything is hard before it gets easy–never give up because you don’t master something immediately.

The results were astonishing. The brain-is-a-muscle students significantly outperformed their peers in math, many showing dramatic turnarounds, such as the student who went from a failing grade to an 84 on her next exam. Dweck’s work shows that a pure idea intervention can have a substantial effect. “The brain is a muscle” is an idea that stuck.

So, is leadership like intelligence? (Please, no oxymoron jokes.) No one has run a comparable study on corporate leaders. But the notion of born leaders still permeates the business world. Marty Linsky, a faculty member at the JFK School of Government at Harvard University, puts it well: “I’ve never met anyone who thinks that leadership is inherited who doesn’t think they have it.” Yet consider the military, another domain where leadership is critical. We might expect West Point to be focused on attracting born leaders. Not so. “The whole point is to develop leaders,” says Colonel Tom Kolditz, head of behavioral sciences and leadership at the school and the author of In Extremis Leadership, a study of leadership in life-and-death situations. What West Point does is create leaders, over the course of a strenuous 47-month curriculum. Kolditz says the cadets are taught, “You weren’t born a leader…. I don’t think that idea is a very American one.”

In the business world, we’re schizophrenic on this issue. We instinctively prize innate leadership. When Home Depot recruits a superstar like Bob Nardelli from GE, it creates the same sensation as when the Yankees nabbed Roger Clemens: We’ve landed the natural talent! Conversely, companies are also clearly in the leader-creation business–through rotation programs, training, and executive coaches.

In the business world, we’re schizophrenic about leadership. We instinctively prize innate leadership. And although companies are clearly in the leader-creation business, how far does the tolerance for believing that you can grow your skills go?

But how far does the tolerance for the growth mind-set go in the business world? Our concept of a leader doesn’t allow for them to say things such as, “I don’t know,” or “Man, did we screw that one up.” (Exhibit A, perhaps: David Neeleman’s quick dethroning as CEO of JetBlue after such an admission.)


What if the leaders in your company were compelled to receive a few hours’ training like those junior-high students? How would your business be different? You might put more dollars into training and less into selection. You might see more performance reviews that were really about coaching and development rather than sorting and evaluation. You might see leaders willing to take on riskier projects, in the spirit of a heavier bench press.

It would be fascinating to see whether a few hours of training in a powerful idea might move the needle on corporate income statements. If nothing else, it might create leaders with better math scores.

How you think about your skills–as fixed or growing–affects your success, no matter whether it’s in sports or business.

  1. Bob Nardelli
    He didn’t adapt his GE-bred style for the more laid-back Home Depot and ultimately paid the price.
  2. Manny Ramirez
    He’s a brilliant hitter, but his cavalier attitude about spring training and practice keep him from being an immortal.
  3. Anne Mulcahy
    She never intended to be a CEO, but her on-the-job learning helped her turn around Xerox quickly.
  4. Tiger Woods
    His obsessive approach to bettering his game makes him without peer on the golf course.
  5. David Neeleman
    The JetBlue founder is a true learning leader, but he may have cost himself his CEOship when he admitted his mistakes.

Read more Made to Stick columns

Chip Heath and Dan Heath are the best-selling authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. If you’ve been successful in efforts to reframe your mind-set or have other real-world examples you’d like to share, tell us about it.