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Don't Stick with What You Know

March 5, 2015
If you want to become a leader, says this prominent business educator, start by acting like one.
When Herminia Ibarra began teaching at Harvard Business School, she spent long hours poring over her cases and notes to ensure that she was prepared for any question. In class, she stayed near her desk at the bottom of one of the large amphitheaters, well-removed from her students but close to her notes. She worked very hard and consistently got poor reviews from her students. Then a star professor sat in on one of her classes and offered her this advice: Make it her mission not to own the content, but to own the room. Despite how uncomfortable it felt, Ibarra moved away from the desk, started prowling the cavernous rooms and became more demonstrative in her teaching style. Students started paying more attention, she loosened up and her ratings improved.
What she had initially dismissed as "silly theatrics and emotional manipulation," Ibarra writes in her new book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), she came to value as a "necessary approach to pedagogy that made the learning stick." And that's the lesson that Ibarra wants to convey -- sticking with what you are comfortable with and becoming more proficient at it is a trap for many who want to advance as leaders. Nor will soul-searching intended to discover your "true self" equip you to take on new challenges. Instead, she argues, you have to act your way into a new type of leadership thinking. Break out of the routine, act differently and that change in behavior will slowly change the way you think about your work and what is most important for you to accomplish. Ibarra, now a professor at INSEAD business school, says leaders need to develop what she calls "outsight"  -- a fresh perspective we get when we change from the outside in and when we act like a leader before trying to think like one. This involves new ways of doing your job, networking with people and developing connections with people inside and out of your organization. It may be uncomfortable to experiment this way, but she says it is necessary in order for leaders to "reinvent their own identities." Making this change is helped by recognizing the difference between management and leadership, Ibarra writes. Management entails working efficiently and competently to accomplish goals within established processes. Leadership, on the other hand, is aimed at "creating change in what we do and how we do it," working outside established norms and explaining to others why change is needed.            

To help with this change, says Ibarra, she recommends taking these steps:

  • Be more playful with your own identity to stretch beyond your current self-concept.
  • Let go of performance goals that can diminish how much we're willing to risk in the service of learning.
  • Don't stick to your story. Try different versions, narrate different defining moments and keep editing as you would your CV.
  • Allocate less time to what you do best to devote more time to learning other things that are also important.
  • Create and use networks to tap new ideas, connect to people in different worlds and access radically different perspectives.

By implementing these changes, Ibarra maintains you'll then let go of old habits and sources of self-esteem that define your current limits.  The more you experiment with acting like a leader, she concludes, the more you and others will perceive you as one.

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