Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Leader Mindset: How Leaders Should Think About Followers

Developing a winning team starts with the right attitude.

Key points

  • Successful leaders believe in their team members and trust that they can get the job done.
  • Leaders must ensure that the team comes first and that members feel a part of the team “family.”
  • Great leaders anticipate what a team, and its members, need and are prepared and forward-thinking.

In 1960, management professor, Douglas MacGregor, distinguished between Theory X and Theory Y managers/leaders. Theory X leaders see followers as a means to an end–“cogs in the machine.” Theory X leaders believe team members need to be micromanaged, with the leader calling all the shots. Theory Y leaders, on the other hand, believe that followers are self-motivated and can be committed to the team’s and organization’s goals if their leader supports them.

Obviously, Theory Y leaders have the right mindset, but what are the elements of a successful leader mindset? Here are five:

  1. The team-building mindset. A team can’t succeed if it doesn’t have the right personnel. Like a coach of a winning athletic team, a great leader should always ensure that collectively the team has the right combination of skills to succeed. Great leaders are always looking for talent, focused on developing and honing team members’ skills, and building shared commitment to the team.
  1. The power of positive expectations. Decades of research on the Pygmalion effect (Eden, 1992) clearly shows that holding positive expectations about team members’ ability and performance (the “I-know-you-can-do-it” attitude) motivates team members to higher levels of performance. Honestly believing in your team can spur them to success.
  1. It’s we, not me. Leaders who have an inclusive mindset lead more effective teams. Research shows that leaders who use the pronoun “we” more than “I” when speaking with team members have more committed and inspired members. Keeping in mind that collective identity really helps. Importantly, inclusive leaders work to “inclusify”–appreciating diverse team members’ identities while ensuring each member feels a sense of belonging to the team (Johnson, 2020).
  1. The team comes first. A very successful CEO told me that the COVID-19 pandemic helped him realize that a leader needs to put the welfare of team members first. This means supporting team members and being caring and empathic is critical. In discussions of the so-called “triple bottom line” (i.e., people, profits, and the planet), successful organizations do indeed put their people first–ensuring that if their employees are satisfied and committed, it will lead to greater performance and build profit.
  1. Proactive thinking. A good leader thinks ahead–not just about strategy, but also anticipating the needs of team members. This includes taking an interest in both team members’ individual growth and development in their jobs and careers, anticipating when a team member may leave, and having a plan for replacement. This may also involve accommodating team members’ need for accommodations (e.g., parental leaves, remote work possibilities, phased retirement, etc.).


MacGregor, D. (1960). The human side of enterprise (Vol. 21, No. 166.1960). McGraw‐Hill: New York.

Eden, D. (1992). Leadership and expectations: Pygmalion effects and other self-fulfilling prophecies in organizations. The Leadership Quarterly, 3(4), 271-305.

Johnson, S.K. (2020). Inclusify: The power of uniqueness and belonging to build innovative teams. Harper-Collins.

More from Ronald E. Riggio Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today