Are you a Formal or Mindset Leader?


We are all leaders. But are you a Formal Leader or a Mindset Leader?

Ask a random sample of people whether they consider themselves to be leaders and you will probably get at least three different kinds of answers. ‘Yes, I am a leader’, ‘No, I’m not a leader’ and ‘Maybe I’m a leader, I’m not sure; what do you mean?’

There are several reasons why you might not consider yourself to be a leader: You don’t have a formal leadership role. For you, someone else is a leader. You don’t want to be a leader. You’re just fine being ‘led’ by others. You don’t know what it really means. Leadership is just a buzzword.

Furthermore, if you think you have a leadership role, like being the managing director or the ‘head’ of something, you might be confused by the idea that everyone is suddenly a leader. What does that mean for your hard-earned authority?

The answer is in the difference between the leader with a formal role and title on the business card, and the leader who has adopted a leadership mindset. You can call them Formal Leaders (FL) and Mindset Leaders (ML).

Formal Leaders (FL)
– Have a formal title
– Have responsibility
– Are accountable
– Authority in role
– Applies to some

Mindset Leaders (ML)
– Have the mindset
– Take responsibility
– Are proactive
– Authority in person
– Can apply to all

In a company of Mindset Leaders, it’s up to each and every one to assume leadership. The Mindset Leader would be there not only to deliver more customer value but also, by thinking like a leader, identify opportunities for the company, support her colleagues and take initiatives for her personal development. Imagine the company where all people are Mindset Leaders.

But if everyone is responsible, nobody is accountable, right? There is a balance between Formal Leaders and Mindset Leaders. Formal Leaders who are too authoritative will diminish the motivation of the Mindset Leaders to act autonomously and proactively, leaving only a few who feel responsibility. You know that you are in a more traditional culture when you hear: ‘Please let me check that with my manager.’

Yet an organization with strong Mindset Leaders, where everyone independently exercises individual leadership, could risk undermining a useful and clear structure and the roles of the Formal Leaders. At one extreme you have one almighty leader who everyone obeys (the old model) and at the other extreme everyone is a leader with equal input and power, a ‘boss-less’ organization. The current reality is somewhere in between – all around us there are Formal Leaders with various official responsibilities. But regardless of the level of Formal Leadership, everyone should be Mindset Leaders.

Can anyone really be a leader anywhere?

The concept of leadership for all might work well in one kind of organization and be more of a challenge in another. Traditional hierarchies will have a harder time accepting the idea, for example, and a lot can depend on the type of industry and on cultural considerations in different parts of the world.

The tech sector is fast moving, which means that it needs a more decentralized leadership. The pace is so fast that decisions must often be made on the spot. Who has time to wait for the CEO to digest all the relevant information and make up their mind? And the CEO does not have all the answers anyway.

The belief that everyone can be a leader is not a result of cosy equality and democracy. Rather, it is a business necessity to deliver results in dynamic industries that are more like battlefields: those closest to the action are in a better position to make decisions from on-the-spot information than superiors far from the front lines. We see this approach in action in elite military units such as the US Navy Seals, even where on the surface the organization looks like a traditional hierarchical structure with many ranks and levels of command. Facing demanding and rapidly changing conditions where the stakes are very high asks for a balance between Formal and Mindset Leadership.

Leadership is not a position, it’s a mindset. And it is a mindset that is open to anyone who cares to adopt it, regardless of place, industry, job, situation or other circumstances. The only obstacle is really yourself. Once you start believing that you can be a leader, your attitude towards the world around you will start to change.