What is an open-minded leader?

How many times have you heard someone use the term, open mind?

“I am keeping an open mind.”

“Let’s approach this with an open mind.”

“I would definitely describe myself as someone with an open mind.”

“Please keep an open mind as I tell you this”.

I expect that, like me, you have heard it countless times, used by countless people, in countless settings. Add to this the number of occasions when the words were used, and we didn’t even notice.

But, have you ever taken the time to think about what having an open mind really means? How important it is to you? What mindsets, values and actions make you feel you are living your life with an open mind?

As passionate as I am about making an open mind a hallmark of how I think and behave it wasn’t until a few months ago, during an otherwise ordinary conversation with one of my clients that I was compelled to reflect on – and give voice to – what it takes to live my life with one. My client and I were strategizing how she should handle an issue with someone at work and, upon commenting that she was trying to keep an open mind about it, she posed two, purely rhetorical questions that set my mind in motion: “So, what does being an open-minded leader really mean, and how do we know if we have one?”

Curious to find a current formal definition of the term, I hopped on the Internet, and the first one to pop up was from Dictionary.com, which defines open mind as ‘a mind receptive to different ideas and opinions’. For those who feel strongly about sticking with a formally documented (and generally accepted?) definition, I will concede that the above description is accurate, to an extent. Having an open mind certainly includes being receptive to different ideas and opinions in a given situation. But, I would also argue that this definition stops far short of the term’s infinitely deeper meaning.

Your open mind can be a vital, enduring & endlessly rewarding part of how you interpret and engage in the world. Your open mind can be a deeply embedded part of your value system. A positive driving force behind your actions, and a hallmark of what gives you a sense of purpose. It can help you derive greater joy from your relationships and the choices you make throughout your life. It can play a critical role in your professional growth, leadership potential and career success and satisfaction. Also, it can help you refrain from needing to control everything in your world. It can keep you open and excited about learning. It can position you to see and relish the strengths and potential in others without feeling threatened. Without question, it can be positively infectious and help inspire others to operate with an open mind as well.

Thanks to the incredible work of neuroscientists, psychologists, behavioral theorists and other extraordinary thinkers, there is an incredible universe of research, practice and emerging strategies and ideas from which we can draw to cultivate, live according to and continually expand and enrich our open mind. This, combined with our biology and natural talents, and what we experience and learn from friends, family, teachers and mentors, colleagues, clients and so many others throughout our lives positions us to both benefit from and share the tremendous gift of an open-minded leader.

Below is just a handful of the myriad mindsets and values that I consider essential ingredients of an open-minded leader:

1. Adopt a Growth Mindset

Thanks to the groundbreaking work of Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, Ph.D., and others, we know with greater certainty than ever before that all of us – you, me, your employees, your family and friends, even your really mean neighbor down the street – have an endless capacity for lifelong learning and continued development.

As Dr. Dweck so clearly and passionately explains in her TED Talk, The Power of Believing That You Can Improve, adopting this as one of your core beliefs gives you what she calls a ‘Growth Mindset’, one in which you believe and operate with the conviction that the potential for your own and others’ growth is unlimited and deserves to be nurtured. With a growth mindset, you are excited to help others recognize and build on their talents. You relish learning and teaching equally and recognize that if we’re attuned and looking for it, the literal act of learning knows no hierarchy, i.e., there are no age, education, race, gender or any other requirements for learning; we can learn from anyone, anywhere, anytime.


  • One of your employees just made a major mistake on an important project. In a fixed mindset, namely one in which you believe people’s potential and capacity for growth is limited, you would not only see your employee’s mistake as a failure, but you might also decide that your employee as a whole is a failure, even to the point of considering a termination. With a growth mindset, you would understandably be upset about the mistake and need to determine how to address it with your employee, but you wouldn’t see your employee as a failure overall. You would believe s/he has the potential to improve and grow, and you would be motivated to help support their development.
  • You take one of your new employees with you to observe a client meeting, and it turns out to be an especially challenging meeting because the client is not happy with the way you and your team are handling a particular aspect of the work. To make matters worse, you were not able to think of a resolution to the issue on the spot and there is still tension in the air when you leave. On the drive home you are feeling anxious and upset with yourself. As a distraction, you ask your employee what she thinks is the best way to handle the issue, and the strategy she offers is brilliant, right on target and one that would never have occurred to you. Because you recognize that there is always room for you (and anyone) to grow, and you embrace the fact that you can learn from anyone, you are thrilled that someone 20 years your junior, with little professional experience, just came up with the plan that will help your firm retain one of its largest clients.

2. Employ a Curiosity Mindset

In my article, Why Curiosity Should Trump Judgment Every Time, I describe how a mindset of curiosity can be applied and beneficial to all aspects of your life. In a curious frame of mind, you are constantly open to countless ideas, perspectives, experiences and people. You possess a genuine desire to know more – about others, yourself, your surroundings, the world overall. It excites you to live in a social world in which others are consistently expanding your mind, and you love doing the same for others. A curious mindset increases your capacity for adaptability and resilience during difficult situations and helps keep you from jumping to, and determining your actions based on assumptions, biases, and judgments that are made in a closed (i.e., the opposite of open) frame of mind.

Example: An employee still hasn’t sent the important email you asked her to send to the client the day before. Understandably, you are feeling annoyed, and your patience is being tested. But, what if you inject some curiosity into those negative thoughts? What if you say to yourself, “I’m frustrated that she didn’t send the email, but I also wonder why she didn’t send it. Could it be that she didn’t know what to write but thought I might get upset if she asked me for input? Is she overwhelmed with work and doesn’t know how to prioritize? There is no reason to assume she was being insubordinate or lazy.”

3. Know How to Distinguish Your Fears & Negative Assumptions From the Facts

It seems safe to say that at least one of the following scenarios would cause almost any of us a lot of anxiety:

  • You have just countered a compensation package that another firm made to your firm’s top sales superstar and now you are waiting for her to decide whether she is going to accept your offer or go with the other firm.
  • When you put a bid on a house you really want and are awaiting the owners’ decision.
  • You have requested a raise and are waiting for your boss to call with her decision.

When we care so deeply about the outcome of a situation, but it is largely, if not fully out of our control, our negative emotions (e.g., fear and anxiety) often lead us to believe, with absolute certainty, that the outcome we least want is an inevitable reality:

“There is no way she’s going to accept our counter offer and stay with our firm.”

“The sellers have already decided to accept someone else’s bid; I’m sure of it.”

“There is just no good reason why my boss would approve my raise request.”

And yet, these are not rooted in reality at all. They are just our ‘worry thoughts’ that were triggered by our negative emotions. In each of the scenarios above, our reality is that we simply don’t know how our situation is going to turn out. Another reality is that we are so anxious that, without realizing it, we are seeing everything through a negative lens; our presence of mind has abandoned us.

The next time you are feeling anxious and fearful about the outcome of a particular situation, and your mind starts telling you that the outcome you fear the most is an absolute given, do your best to recognize that these are just your thoughts. They are not sound conclusions based on real facts. Label them ‘worry thoughts’ to give them a level of objectivity. Do your best to create distance between these negative thoughts and your current reality, which is that you don’t know what is going to happen. Tell yourself that it is okay not to know. Remind yourself that there are many possible outcomes, not just the one that your negative mindset has led you to believe is the only (and inevitable) one. See if you can regain a positive frame of mind, one that is clear enough to conceive of several potential positive outcomes.

4. Identify & Capitalize on Your ‘Free-Brain’ Spaces

Do you ever have especially creative ideas, a-ha moments or rejuvenating levels of mental clarity in the shower? How about during a walk, run, bike ride or another solo physical activity that you genuinely enjoy (which also releases endorphins in your brain)? Maybe when you are alone working in your yard, or when you nab a nice chunk of quiet time somewhere with a glass of wine and music and absolutely nothing else? Or, maybe for you it’s an entirely different activity or environment altogether.

Regardless of what it is, the key is to have at least one, but preferably two or more activities or specific places that feel good at a very basic level, create a sense of calm and require minimal intellectual energy. These are what I refer to as ‘free-brain’ spaces. They are activities or places that temporarily clear your mental clutter (i.e., your stressors, jam-packed to-do lists, unanswered emails and phone calls, etc.) and create some open space in your brain where your mind is free and safe to wander aimlessly, where optimism, confidence, curiosity, kindness and creativity prevail, and judgment doesn’t exist.

5. Embrace a Mutuality Mindset

With what she so eloquently refers to as a Mutuality Mindset, Forbes columnist and Emmy-winning former Wall Street Journal and NBC journalist, Kare Anderson has given us a much deeper understanding of what it means to be inherently social creatures and is helping us discover new ways to thrive in a social world where community, connectedness and shared purpose make all of the difference.

In her TEDxBerkeley talk, Redefine Your Life Around Mutuality, and her books, Mutuality Matters and Mutuality Matters More, among others, Anderson helps us understand that a mindset of mutuality is far more than a belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; it is conducting our lives in a way that supports our conviction that we – each of us and all of us – will achieve more, grow more, find greater personal and professional satisfaction, and live longer, healthier lives if we genuinely value and bring out the energy, ideas, talents and experiences of others. With a mutuality mindset, we learn to let go of the ‘I did this and you did that’ way of thinking and operating and move towards a ‘we accomplished this together’ way of living our lives.

Check out Kare Anderson’s website, www.sayitbetter.com, for readily applicable examples of how we can ‘turn more situations into opportunities to connect [with others] around a sweet spot of shared interest’.

This list is far from exhaustive. There is no limit to the ways in which any of us – and all of us together – can nurture, strengthen, share and gain fulfillment from a mind wide open.

So, to come full circle, what does being an open-minded leader really mean to you? At work? At home? Overall?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Originally published at switchandshift.com


  • Dara Goldberg

    Life Transitions Coach for Women in Midlife

    Dara Goldberg, Inc

    I am on a never-ending, super passionate mission to do away with the all too common and unfair notion that when women in midlife experience a major shift in what gives us a sense of identity and purpose and what meets our need for a sense of connection and value, it is somehow a 'crisis' that we brought onto ourselves. That it is somehow a flaw within us. That we should have done something differently. That we should keep our confusion, fear and discontentment to ourselves  and 'get better' on our own. Nope. Not true. Gotta stop now. It's unnerving. It's confusing. It can feel like being 'lost in transition' when we are in that uncomfortable space between who we have been for so long and who we are becoming. But, it's also natural and open the door to a remarkable next chapter filled with joy, meaning and fulfillment. After spending spending almost 20 years advising and raising millions of dollars for nonprofit organizations and charitable foundations as a partner in a management consulting firm, I decided it was time to do whatever I can to change the public perception and conversation when it comes to midlife 'growth spurts', as I call them, and to help women find and capitalize on the growth and opportunity that comes from transitional moments in the middle of our lives. Over the years, I've helped thousands of women - through individual and group coaching, online courses, speaking and writing - rediscover themselves and define, design and take action on what will give them a sense of joy, meaning, and fulfillment in their remarkable next chapter. ​Please don't hesitate to reach out if I can be helpful, or if you would simply like to chat. I can be reached at [email protected].