Senior leaders operate in ambiguity. They confront constantly shifting variables and a multitude of questions and concerns, each one seemingly more important than the last. The consequences of getting bogged down or sidetracked are immense – financially and culturally – derailing progress and leading to additional disruption.

During these critical moments, astute executives return to pivotal questions: “What’s working? Where can we improve? What’s next?” Asking questions that center you, your leadership team and the organization is a smart way to create a culture focused on curiosity that drives toward the best decisions. This attitude is the embodiment of a growth mindset, an attribute leaders can use to gain a competitive advantage.

My personal commitment to developing a growth mindset is through competitive learning, which centers on what I can do to continually improve as a leader. As executives, whether it is in front of our own teams or on the boards we serve, our triumphs hinge on our ability to innovate rapidly, synthesize information effectively and make decisions when ambiguity is ever-present.

Let’s be honest, we cannot know which skills will make the crucial difference in the flurry of decisions we have to make each day. So, we must continually search for new and stronger ideas. By constantly refreshing our personal skill set, we can immediately apply the insights we have learned to spark critical thinking, meaningful change and ongoing success.

Building a growth mindset

While a growth mindset should be in every leader’s toolkit, some struggle with this skill because it forces them to admit that they don’t have all the answers immediately. In some ways, building a growth mindset flies in the face of what has made the individual successful on their journey to senior leadership.

Companies regularly promote people into management roles based on their knowledge, experience and skill. These high-achievers may be reluctant to admit that they aren’t the smartest person in the room. They might also be slow to seek advice or appreciate different viewpoints.

However, the secret to high performance is to balance personal confidence with the vulnerability to acknowledge any gaps in expertise. “Vulnerability” is not a word most traditional leaders would want as a label. Yet, today’s savvy executives see real power in creating a culture where the team – not just superstar individuals – contributes together to find the best path. Leaders who close themselves off to new ideas are only hurting themselves and their long-term prospects.

As you grow as a leader, you will find that the inverse of what you may have learned is true – the fewer answers you have, the better your culture. Rather than look to a single person for “the answer,” the team will bring new ideas from a variety of perspectives, resulting in the whole organization gaining as it develops curiosity as a foundational tenet.

Of course, leaders have strong opinions and ideas, but they also leave room for new information. You can drive toward your goals, yet still have humility and respect for other people’s contributions. A leader with a growth mindset can be strong-willed, but not stubborn; assertive, but not aggressive; self-assured and confident, but always open to new ideas.

5 tips for cultivating a growth mindset

Senior leaders set the tone for their organizations, particularly in building a growth-focused culture focused on continuous improvement and eagerly sharing ideas. The executive team creates trust by sharing what they are learning and being role models for a growth mindset.

Here are five actionable tips to help you promote continuous improvement, spark creative thinking and encourage a growth mindset:

  1. Build a feedback culture: Feedback is not always easy, but it is essential for an inclusive leader. Make feedback a regular part of your team’s process, which will make it less confrontational or judgmental. For those still developing a growth mindset, ensure that feedback moves beyond negativity. It’s your responsibility to coach your team to see each critique as a learning opportunity.
  2. Ask probing questions: Probing questions don’t have to be negative or aggressive. Asking “What’s next?” will push your team out of their comfort zone, encouraging them to move beyond what they think they’re capable of achieving. Other questions to promote innovation are: “Is there a better way?” or “Is this the best use of our time?”
  3. Create a psychologically safe environment: People may be reluctant to share suggestions or a new approach, if they don’t trust their team or aren’t self-confident. There should be zero tolerance for retaliation, criticism or ridicule. Make it clear that everyone is expected to contribute and every idea will be considered with respect.
  4. Assign outside reading: Emerging leaders have an incentive to improve. Give your team articles or books that describe different ways of decision-making and problem-solving.
  5. Establish a protocol for expansive thinking: As an inclusive leader, you can encourage the free exchange of ideas by including brainstorming as a part of meetings. There is great value in using 10 or 15 minutes to explore radical thinking and progressive ideas. When your team gets into this habit, they will spark innovation and wider curiosity.

If the last several years are an indicator, then certainly 2024 is going to be filled with challenges. We may not be able to remove ambiguity or predict what the future holds, but we can create modes of thinking and acting that prepare us for whatever lies ahead. A growth mindset built on intellectual curiosity is one of the essential traits of strong leaders and great teams.

And, for those leaders who master it, a growth mindset offers a distinct competitive advantage. Executives who have a growth mindset embrace risk, adapt swiftly and harness the collective power of diverse teams ready to win in the highly competitive marketplace.

About Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 SE Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement (TDM) to fundamentally transform the modern workplace through diversity-led culture change. TDM was recently acquired by Workplace Options, which brings holistic wellbeing services to more than 80 million people in more than 200 countries and territories across the globe. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, Thompson is author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics.

Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events and his podcast, or contact him at for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. TDM has created LeaderView, a leadership assessment tool that uses cultural competency as a driver for improving whole team performance. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.