How to Become a Leader? Do Leadership Work.

This is a review of “Act Like A Leader, Think Like A Leader,” by Herminia Ibarra, published by HBR Press.

Contrary to much received wisdom about how to develop your leadership skills; this book exhorts you to spend less time on introspection and self-analysis, and much more time learning to do the work that leaders do. Starting with introspection has the danger of rooting you in your current self-perception, rather than in your potential. And you won’t know your potential until you start doing the work of a leader. Start doing the work of a leader, then reflect on it and on how you handle it, later.

Ibarra is a professor at INSEAD. Her book is at the forefront of the movement to align leadership development more closely with how leaders actually learn. She contends that traditional leadership training aims to change the way a leader thinks by asking her to reflect on who she is through introspection and self-reflection. That is not necessarily the place to start. Because your current way of thinking about your work and about who you are is “exactly what’s keeping you from stepping up.” You don’t have any other frame of reference.

Why? Your experience and success has been the result of acting in a certain way. If, say, you have had years of success as a functional expert, but now have been given some leadership responsibility, how do you delegate more, motivate more, let others decide the task? By doing some self-analysis first, you will be rooted in your current mindset. But in a leadership role that requires some personal change “you’ll need to change your mindset, and there’s only one way to do that: by acting differently.”

In other words, people change their minds by first changing their behavior. Because, change to you happens from the outside in, not from the inside out. She calls this outsight.

As she says, “The paradox of change is that the only way to alter the way we think is by doing the very things our habitual thinking keeps us from doing.” Therefore, she advocates that the only way to think like a leader is to start doing leader things: new projects, interacting with different types of people, and experimenting with unfamiliar things and unfamiliar ways of doing those things.

Addressing your learning as a leader in this way lets you “reshape your self image of what you can do and what is worth doing.”

So, how do you begin to act differently?

Ibarra splits the task in to 3 actions:

1st Redefine Your Work. Because you are so successful in your current role, and you enjoy it so much, you do more of it and you get better at it. This is a “competency trap.” You spend less time learning other things. To avoid this trap, it will help to get involved in projects that are unfamiliar, with unfamiliar people.

2nd Network Differently. Networking is a fundamental skill for leaders. And as you step up to a leadership role, doing it consciously in a different way will give you a path to what you might become—not who you are now. Find operational, personal and strategic networks, especially outside your own organization.

3rd Express Yourself Differently. There is lots of research about leaders needing to be authentic. But this can be a self-image trap, too. As you step up to a leadership role, you have to discard some of the old you in order to perform as a leader. And you sometimes feel fake while you make that transition. You’re not sure what is right for you. Experiment first, play with a new behavior. It may take time to get comfortable with it. And you may not. But by experimenting, you can decide what is right for you.


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