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Encouraging an Executive Mindset Among Federal Leaders

Thursday, February 22, 2018

In her book, Mindset, Carol Dweck of Stanford University introduced and popularized the idea of mindsets to an audience unfamiliar with the concept. Specifically, she examined the “fixed” mindset versus the “growth” mindset, contending that that learning to develop a growth mindset will help leaders become more resilient and achieve goals more effectively.

Mindsets show up in many facets of everyday life. A common version of mindset involves how each of us approaches social gatherings. When some of us attend a social event at someone’s home, we will adopt a “host” mindset and serve beverages to fellow guests, refill their plates, and help clean up. On the other hand, some of us a clearly adopt a “guest” mindset. These people expect to be served, express gratitude to the hosts, and simply enjoy the social experience.

The point: whether we’re talking about a fixed versus a growth mindset, there is an element of choice involved.

Enter Executive Mindsets

Mindsets also show up in leadership development. Let’s examine three different kinds of executive mindsets.


The first mindset is the administrative mindset, and it is inherently past-oriented. The focus is on rules, regulations, policies, and standards of conduct. The administrative mindset is quite prevalent in federal service. In the administrative mindset, the emphasis is on complying with established rules and policies. As those rules were developed in the past but enforced in the present, those of us who adopt an administrative mindset are continually at risk for not noticing how current or new circumstances render a previously established policy obsolete. Consequently, the administrative mindset is inherently risk averse.

The second mindset—the management mindset—emphasizes the here and now. It is inherently operational and tactical, and oriented in the present tense. In the management mindset the focus is on deliverables and results, finished products and services. The best managers build the best machines to produce products that meet the needs and demands of their consumers. They are able to convert their versions of raw materials at the front end into valued commodities at the back end. The best managers also are able to solve for incremental improvement, fine tuning their operational machines to produce faster, more efficiently or more accurately over time. The downside of the management mindset involves potential for developing blind spots and failing to notice when changes in the external environment diminish the value of their results.

The third preference is the leadership mindset, which is visionary, strategic, and future-focused. Compared to the other two mindsets, the leadership mindset incorporates external context into setting priorities. It focuses on the future and on what’s possible. It also inquires about direction, asking: Where should--and could—we be going? “What if…” questions figure prominently in the leadership mindset. Compared to the administrative and management mindset, the leadership mindset is the boldest.

Applying Mindsets in Federal Sphere

The development question for aspiring federal managers needs to be on exploring the suitable proportions for the three mindsets in future roles. Effective federal executives must be able to navigate all three mindsets. In many agencies, opportunities to lead may be sparse in frontline supervisor and middle management roles, though. Thus, developing the leadership mindset is where aspiring executives need to focus their learning.

All three mindsets are necessary in order to be successful, but a career in federal services poses a risk in overemphasizing the administrative mindset. The real developmental challenge for aspiring federal executives is to cultivate the leadership mindset in proportion to the leadership challenges of an executive role.

About the Author
Neil Stroul is a senior adjunct professorial lecturer for the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University. Professionally, Neil is first and foremost a leadership coach. Trained originally as a psychologist, Neil blends more than 25 years of experience in organizational consulting and the perspective of applied psychology to helping executives build their leadership capabilities. When he is not working one-on-one with senior executives, he can be found working with senior leadership teams, helping them to work initially in a more coordinated, and ultimately collaborative, fashion. Contact him
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