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ATD Blog

4 Mindsets That Drive Dysfunctional Leadership

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Over the last several years, we have seen some pretty public and noteworthy leadership downfalls—John Schnatter at Papa Johns, Travis Kalanick at Uber, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, and Sepp Blatter with FIFA. On top of this, there are near-countless reports suggesting that the state of leadership within organizations is less than stellar. Such statistics include the following:

  • 63 percent of employees don’t trust their CEO.
  • 82 percent of people don’t trust their boss to tell the truth.
  • 64 percent of employees believe their leaders do not act with honesty and integrity.
  • 65 percent of employees would prefer to have a different boss compared to more pay.

While I do not personally know the leaders identified above, like most people, I have worked with my fair share of dysfunctional leaders. They have at least one thing in common: They all believe that they were doing a great job, doing their best.

In reality, every leader I have worked with largely feels like they are doing their very best.

Well, if most leaders feel like they are doing their very best, what separates the effective leaders from the dysfunctional leaders?
The answer to this question is also the answer to the following questions:

  • What causes one leader to hire “yes people” and another leader to hire people smarter than them?
  • What causes one leader to see disagreement as a threat and another leader to see disagreement as an opportunity to learn?
  • What causes one leader to see risk as something to avoid and another leader to see risk as necessary for the achievement of great accomplishments?
  • What causes one leader to see underperforming employees as problems to get rid of and another leader to see underperforming employees as people to learn from to improve their organizational culture?

The distinguishing factor between effective and dysfunctional leaders is the mindsets the leaders possess.

Mindsets are the mental lenses that shape how people see and interpret the world around them. Dysfunctional leaders’ mindsets attune them to mishandling situations and making subpar decisions, while simultaneously leading them to believe they’ve taken the best course of action.

There are four mindsets that drive dysfunctional leaders.

1. Fixed Mindset

When leaders have a fixed mindset, they do not believe that they are able to change or improve their talents, abilities, or skills. With this belief, fixed-mindset leaders are attuned to seeking validation and avoiding failure. This is because if they do not believe they can improve their abilities, then their brain causes them to prioritize being seen as someone with ability; and, if they fail, that would suggest they are a failure.

Thus, a fixed-mindset leader continually desires and prioritizes looking good.


To demonstrate how this mindset plays out, let me give you an example. When fixed-mindset leaders need to select a leadership team, they are going to be inclined to select people who they feel superior to, better than, and smarter than. This is because being around people who are smarter than them or have strengths that they do not have would be a constant reminder of their ineptitude.

2. Closed Mindset

When leaders have a closed mindset, they close themselves off from the ideas and suggestions of others, they presume that they are right, and they stubbornly and illogically hold on to their own points of view. This is because their closed mindset is attuned to being right. They feel like if they are wrong, those they lead will see them as incompetent, and they will even feel incompetent—something they want to avoid at all costs.

Ultimately, a closed-mindset leader continually desires and prioritizes being right.

One way this mindset causes leaders to lead dysfunctionally is because such leaders see disagreement as a threat or an attempt to undermine their authority, prompting them to get defensive rather than explore the conflict for optimal thinking.

3. Prevention Mindset

The third dysfunctional mindset is a prevention mindset. When leaders have a prevention mindset they are focused on not losing. They think, “As long as nothing goes wrong, I am doing a good job.” Thus, they seek to avoid problems, they don’t want to take risks, and they want to maintain the status quo. They are attuned to doing what is urgent, not necessarily what is important, such as accomplishing goals and objectives.

Ultimately, a prevention-mindset leader continually desires and prioritizes doing what is easy.


Since prevention-mindset leaders are so attuned to avoiding problems, not taking risks, and maintaining the status quo, they end up micromanaging those they lead. What prevention-mindset leaders do not recognize is that while they are usually very busy, their busyness is not headed in any particular direction. In fact, what ends up happening is that prevention-mindset leaders end up in a destination not of their own proactive design, but where the winds and demands of the day take them.

4. Inward Mindset

The fourth dysfunctional mindset is an inward mindset. When leaders have an inward mindset, they see those they lead as objects as opposed to people. In doing so, they naturally see themselves as being more important than others.

Ultimately, inward-mindset leaders continually desire and prioritize doing what is best for themselves.

At a basic level, when a leader has an inward mindset, while they usually do not recognize that they are doing it, they are inclined to take credit instead of share credit. But, at a much deeper level, when leaders possess an inward mindset and things go bad, they instinctively seek to protect themselves before they seek to protect those they lead or their organization.

The Power of Mindsets

The difference between effective and dysfunctional leaders is rooted in how leaders see and interpret their worlds, which is founded in their mindsets.

Luckily, not only can leaders change and improve their mindsets, but these dysfunctional mindsets have functional counterparts that we should promote. They are:

  • Growth mindset: believing that one’s abilities, intelligence, and talents can grow and develop.
  • Open mindset: being open to the ideas and suggestions of others and willing to take those ideas and suggestions seriously.
  • Promotion mindset: possessing a focus on winning and gains.
  • Outward mindset: seeing others as people.

Just as the dysfunctional mindsets drive dysfunctional leaders, these functional mindsets drive the leaders who possess them to operate and navigate their world much more effectively. . . making them truly influential leaders.

About the Author

Ryan Gottfredson, PhD is a leadership development author, researcher, and consultant. He helps organizations vertically develop their leaders primarily through a focus on mindsets. Gottfredson is the Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling author of Success Mindsets: The Key to Unlocking Greater Success in Your Life, Work, & Leadership and The Elevated Leader: Leveling Up Your Leadership Through Vertical Development.

He is the founder and owner of his consulting company, Ryan Gottfredson LLC, where he specializes in elevating leaders and executive teams in a manner that elevates the organization and its culture. He has worked with top leadership teams at CVS Health (top 130 leaders), Deutsche Telekom (500+ of their top 2,000 leaders), Experian, and others. He has also partnered with dozens of organizations (for example, Federal Reserve Bank, Nationwide Insurance, and Cook Medical) to develop thousands of midlevel managers and high-level leaders.

Gottfredson is also a leadership professor at the College of Business and Economics at California State University-Fullerton. He holds a PhD in organizational behavior and human resources from Indiana University, and a BA from Brigham Young University. As a respected authority and researcher on topics related to leadership, management, and organizational behavior, Gottfredson has published more than 20 articles across a variety of journals including Leadership Quarterly, Journal of Management, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Business Horizons, Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, and Journal of Leadership Studies. His research has been cited more than 4,000 times since 2018.

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