Wednesday / July 24

2 Ways Leaders Leverage a Growth Mindset

I’ve been learning about how a growth mindset makes all the difference in leadership and learning for several years now. This topic often comes up when I’m talking with participants after sharing a keynote or facilitating a workshop. In each one of these conversations I sense the gears of a growth mindset yearning to make a difference for kids. However, I’ve always struggled with one question that seems to be on everyone’s mind, “How do I handle reluctant colleagues or teachers?”

I started reflecting on how the strengths-based approach I’ve seen our school use so effectively might apply to the question above. What if we replaced the word “reluctant” with other descriptors that honored the various strengths and passions of these educators? How might that reframe the work? I recall one of my graduate classes talking about how to “flex” and “stretch” ourselves as educators, so some of these ideas may sound familiar.

However, simply telling somebody to flex or stretch themselves feels a little ambiguous to me. This realization eventually led to the development of a surprisingly simple framework for meaningful change. (Call it a proven way to give your growth mindset “legs.”)  After all, if a growth mindset doesn’t produce growth, kids ultimately miss out. This is one reason why my recent book, Renegade Leadership: Creating Innovative Schools for Digital-Age Learners, is heavy on the “how.”

  • How to apply innovation to best practice to support school improvement.
  • How leaders can connect, lead, and inspire sustainable change.
  • How a shared vision and precise pedagogy benefits all learners.
  • How modeling is much more effective than mandating change.

The framework I developed emphasizes the importance of an educator’s strengths in the change process. By focusing on a person’s reluctance or deficits we may be missing the true key to their growth. The same can be said for finding success with school improvement goals. In my experience, tapping into the strengths of others to create success for students can be done in two ways.

When we start with a particular passion or strength we “flex” our muscles (figuratively speaking). This empowers us to work through new learning using a foundation we are familiar with. An example of this type of strengths-based leadership is found in how our school’s equity team is leading meaningful change. Our equity work grew from a few key strengths (i.e. teacher-leaders, a culture of empowerment, and meaningful relationships). These strengths eventually allowed us to lean into some difficult conversations and new learning together.

On the other hand, when we start by “stretching” ourselves we begin with something that is unknown or challenging. The “stretch” approach to change shows how we eventually connect new learning to our strengths to work towards meaningful change. An example of this type of strengths-based leadership can be found in how I’ve observed some recent risk-taking and innovation from workshop participants learning about new tools to inspire their schools.

When these educators start learning about new tools it can be uncomfortable at first. In some cases, the tools (i.e. blogging, social media, and creating educational YouTube videos) and their potential purposes are a mystery. In other cases, actually appearing in an educational video may feel more like going to the dentist. These challenges can be mitigated by moving from the uncomfortable starting point to an area of passion. An educator who is extremely camera-shy may be more willing to “stretch” herself if asked to create a video about a particular strength (e.g. literacy or children’s books).

The two approaches above both rely upon the strengths, talent, and passions of people. Although the starting place for the “flex” approach is different than the “stretch” approach, you can see how important it is to eventually connect to the varying strengths of a person, team, or school. We need to recognize that there are different pathways to meaningful change.

It’s not enough for school leaders to believe in growth and change; we need to create the conditions to make meaningful change a reality for all students. This starts with a leader who understands the hearts, minds, and strengths within a team.

Written by

Dr. Brad Gustafson is an elementary principal in Minnesota. Brad has pioneered efforts to update pedagogy so it is responsive to the needs of digital age students. He is a TEDx and keynote speaker who exudes a passion for learning that is palpable. Brad was a national Digital Innovation in Learning Award (DILA) winner, and a Bammy Award Finalist in the category of Elementary School Principal. He was also a finalist for National Distinguished Principal in 2016.  Brad’s blog, Adjusting Course, was recognized with an Editor’s Choice Content Award by Smartbrief Education. It was named as a “Must-Read” K-12 blog by EdTech Magazine, and a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards. Brad earned his Doctoral degree at Bethel University where his research focused on innovation and professional development. You can connect with him on Twitter via @GustafsonBrad or visit his website at

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