Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader by Herminia Ibarra (HBR Press, 2015), reviewed by Steve Gladis
Overview: Act before you think! Not exactly the advice we might give our kids, but sage advice that the author, Herminia Ibarra, offers her readers based on her myth-shattering research about career transition. Leaders need to act—experiment their way into leadership—and not overthink it. Social science research shows us that people change their minds only after changing theirbehavior. We think of ourselves as writers, runners, lovers only after we’ve acted—written, run and loved. And becoming a leader from the outside in helps generate the author’s slogan: Outsight comes from action—by redefining your job, your network, yourself. Regarding leadership, we act like a leader when we offer new ideas, network with new people to reach goals, and make contributions beyond our expertise. To become a better lder, we must stretch. And, when we’re in transition, reflection should always follow action, not the other way around. By contrast, too much insight reflects on internal knowledge, past experience and thought—too much of which can get you stuck in the past. Rather, advancing your leadership emerges from your acts first, then your thoughts and reflections.
1. The “Outsight Principle.” A rapidly changing world calls for an adaptive, do-it-yourself (DIY) transition. Not waiting for your organization to step up, but taking charge of your own leadership development makes sense. Called the “outsight principle,” the author’s revelation says that we need to act against habit and follow a three-pronged strategy: 1. Work on your job—try new ways at work; 2. Work on your network—meet new people; and, 3. Work on yourself--connect and engage with people in new ways.
2. Redefine Your Job. We tend to stick with what we’re good at because it feels good—and we’re also lazy! Nearly 60% of leaders spend time in meetings—getting bogged down. Shifting from driving day-to-day results to becoming more strategic is how leaders advance. But that shift isn’t easy, and we like easy—staying with who and what we know. Getting off the “dance floor” and onto the “balcony” forces managers to see their job in a more strategic way. To evolve, leaders must act as bridges between diverse groups, envision new ideas, engage with people and embody/become the change they want to see. To do these things, leaders need to get more involved in outside projects, carve out more time for strategic work, and communicate their purpose—their “why.”
3. Network Across and Out. Getting strategic things done demands that leaders become better networked with stakeholders (both lateral and vertical) to sell ideas, identify trends, and compete for resources. To develop, leaders also need to know how to do new things (get new tasks done), which often requires help—coaching, mentoring, encouragement. Thus, expanding networks to more strategic levels and well beyond their current tactical levels makes sense. In one study, managers rated external training (outside networking) as far more valuable than their boss in developing them as a leader—reinforcing the do-it-yourself (DIY) model of transition. Leaders need three kinds of networks: Personal (to develop yourself); operational (to get things done); and strategic (to get to the next level). And, leveraging between networks leads to synergy. Critical components of a good network are breadth (diverse), connectivity (links between groups), and dynamic (evolving). But we tend to network with people who are like ourselves—an evolutionary instinct. In fact, at the beginning of any job interview, finding something in common with the interviewer dramatically increases the chances of getting to the next level. Thus, the more diverse, dynamic and wide a network, the better.
4. Be More Playful with Your Self. Talk to any successful person and they’ve either felt or are feeling like a fraud. So common is this phenomenon that it’s been called “the imposter syndrome.” Often, we get trapped into this situation because when you step up to leadership, the position feels new, weird. Experimenting with new behaviors helps us role play as we adapt to new identities—which can feel less authentic. However, who we were in the past is not who we might become. Three ways to play/experiment: draw from other leaders, focus on learning, and rewrite your story.
5. Stepping Up. Evolving into the next-level leader is not a single event but a process over time. Transition is never a linear, straightforward process—more a bunch of false starts and readjustments. It’s a lot like going to buy a pair of running shoes. You try them on, test drive them on a treadmill or around the store first. Who you are as a leader isn’t preconceived but conceived of testing, failing and trying again. According to Daniel Levinson, we go through transition (3 years) and stability periods (7 years). We tend to incrementally change in stability periods and make bigger changes in our transition phases. There are five stages when stepping into transition as a leader: 1. Disconfirmation—a gap between where you are and want to be; 2. Simple Addition—adding and testing out new roles and behaviors; 3. Complication—setbacks that happen along the transition; 4. Course Correction—reflection on new endeavors and impact; 5. Internalization—confirming your new identity and sticking with changes. Bottom Line: To become a leader, act first, then think and reflect on it. Change how you work, who you hang around with and how you express yourself. In his commencement speech at Stanford, Steve Jobs said: “You can’t connect the dots going forward; you can only connect them looking backward.” So, stepping out and trying/acting into leadership may not immediately make perfect sense, but one day it will form a coherent narrative if we stay true to our quest to become a better leader.
6. More Good Stuff Inside: Check out these nuggets: The Outsight Graphic (p. 11); Is Your Work Environment Telling You It’s Time to Change (p.19); A Network Audit (p. 73); What’s Wrong with Your Network (p.102); The Big Questions (p. 102); Are you in a Career-Building Period or in a Career-Transitioning Period? (p. 179).