Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader – Herminia Ibarra

‘How can I know who I am until I see what I do?’

Karl Weick, social psychologist

The title of Herminia Ibarra’s new book captures its key message: if you step up and behave like a leader, you will start to think and feel as if you are one. Even if acting like a leader feels uncomfortable and inauthentic at first, in time it will become more natural, part of who you are, the leader you’ve become. In Ibarra’s framework, the acting comes first, the thinking follows. It’s the old adage ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ writ large, and it flips round the more traditional approach, that you need to reflect and cogitate extensively before making actual changes.Of course, it’s not quite as clear-cut as that, since stepping up through the transition from manager to leader is in reality an iterative process, in which new habits and actions prompt new ideas and shifts in self-identity, which then act as the springboard to more new behaviours and so on in a spiral of positive reinforcement and development. Nonetheless, there is something of a challenge here to coaches, since much of our work focuses on raising clients’ self-awareness as a platform for further development, which Ibarra would argue is putting the cart before the horse: ‘your current way of thinking is exactly what’s keeping you from stepping up. You’ll need to change your mind-set, and there’s only one way to do that: by acting differently’. Perhaps the solution lies in supporting leaders to do both: simultaneously trying out new behaviours while reviewing their perceptions of themselves, whether closely-held or undiscovered, surfacing limiting beliefs and nudging mindsets into new spaces – what Ibarra calls playing with your self-identity. In an arresting analogy, she likens this to ‘stealing like an artist’ by ‘borrowing the best bits and pieces from different people to compose your own unique collage’. In my view this idea of building your own leadership montage of behaviours and habits is a lovely one.

Ibarra’s argument is not entirely new. Social psychology has long argued that people change their minds by first changing their behaviour, and other authors have proposed a similar approach, for example Marshall Goldsmith in his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. The value Ibarra adds is the clarity of her writing; her research, undertaken with delegates of her Leadership Transition programme at INSEAD; and the novel twists that she brings in. So she addresses the paradox of change – the fact that ‘the only way to alter the way we think is by doing the very things our habitual thinking keeps us from doing’ – through her new Outsight Principle. This builds on the ‘act first, think later’ concept that change happens from the outside in, not the inside out. Ibarra suggests that we can embark on a process of change using three sources of outsight: redefining our job, our network and our self. Insight is seen here as the outcome of these explorations and forays into new territory rather than an input into the change process. It’s worth noting that self-reflection and introspection haven’t been excluded from this process, they just come last (in the ‘redefining your self’ piece) rather than first. As a result Ibarra urges us to ‘plunge yourself into new projects and activities, interact with very different kinds of people, and experiment with different ways of getting things done. Those freshly challenging experiences and their outcomes will transform the habitual actions and thoughts that currently define your limits’.

For me, the section on networking was particularly compelling. Classifying networks into operational, personal and strategic, Ibarra says that while we need all three, most of us are relatively adept at establishing and nurturing the first two, and far less effective at developing and maintaining useful strategic networks. Acknowledging the knowing-doing gap that we all peer across from time to time (we know what we should do, we just can’t seem to get ourselves to do it), she presents several practical techniques to help leaders address this common oversight through creative experimentation and I can envisage using these methods productively with coaching clients.

We all like to do what we already do well – and there is often a certain logic to staying within our comfort zone, because it may have got us great results so far. But Ibarra makes a convincing case that we need to actively reach beyond our established patterns and routine habits if we want to move to the next level. We need to stretch the boundaries by shifting what we do and who we connect with, reframing how we talk about ourselves and how we see ourselves. Some people will find this easier than others – Ibarra’s reflections on ‘chameleons’ versus ‘true-to-selfers’ are fascinating in this regard, and some of her recommended actions may come more naturally to extroverts than to introverts – but the book’s key message applies to us all: if we want to think like a leader, we need to act like one first.

As a self-confessed fan of Ibarra’s earlier work on career change, Working Identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career I was pre-disposed to like this book. I wasn’t disappointed and have already been recommending it widely to clients and contacts. If you’re developing your own leadership identity, or if you’re working with people who are, now I’m recommending it to you as well. And when you’ve read it, I’d love to hear what you think!

by Liz Gooster