Change Begins Within
Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader

Change Begins Within

If you’re a leader, then lead. Stop thinking about yourself and take action instead.

Most leadership training, coaching and self-help books promote a fallacy: To change and improve as a person and a leader, you must study your innermost self. Herminia Ibarra – not just a leadership professor, but the Charles Handy Visiting Professor of Organizational Behavior at the London Business School and the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning at INSEAD – strongly disagrees. In this thoughtful, well-researched motivational text, she presents research to support the idea that self-examination leads to paralysis and that the way to become a leader is to lead.

In times of transition and uncertainty, thinking and introspection should follow action and experimentation – not vice versa.Herminia Ibarra

The more you look inward, she says, the less likely you are to change. Change springs from action. Change from the inside out is an illusion, she explains, so try to change from the outside in. Unlike introspection, moving ahead inspires new thinking and learning for organizations and people. And, the more you act, the more your self-knowledge grows.

“Redefine your job.”

Ibarra warns that as an emerging leader, you might be acting very efficiently while doing the wrong thing. Many managers mine their narrow expertise so well that other people come to resent them and the resources they require. The managers in jeopardy are very good at one skill, but they find – often to their chagrin and too late – that their company has changed and requires other kinds of expertise.

Many people, not just managers but also, for example, professional athletes, fall into the “competency trap.” Managers may “overinvest” in what they do best because they think past performance predicts future success. Successful people like what they do well so much that they rarely train outside that area. Because you do something well, Ibarra warn, you might assume everyone else values it as highly as you do. This can lead to a rude awakening.

It is all too easy to fall hostage to the urgent over the important.Herminia Ibarra

Ibarra cautions that if you concentrate only on the day-to-day details of your specific tasks, you are under-serving your company and yourself. The more you excel at one thing, the higher the costs of gaining expertise in something new. The competency trap is counterintuitive, because you fall into it only when you’re great at what you do.

Change by doing.

The sole way to chart a fresh course of action is to begin practicing new behavior – the sooner, the better. Doing inspires new thinking. Thinking seldom inspires new ways of doing.

[The] outsight principle is the core idea of this book. The principle holds that the only way to think like a leader is to first act: to plunge oneself into new projects and activities, interact with very different kinds of people and experiment with unfamiliar ways of getting things done. Herminia Ibarra

The same insight applies to learning. The best way to learn something new – for both organizations and people – is to do it. Ibarra calls this strategy “outsight,” since the more you act, the more your self-knowledge grows.

Lead by leading.

To become a leader, undertake leadership activities. This includes “bridging” varied people and cultures. Imagine new possibilities, involve people in change requires and live the change yourself.

People become leaders by doing leadership work.Herminia Ibarra

Leaders lead by leading. The more you act like a leader, the more you will regard yourself as a leader. And so will everyone else. If you wait for permission to lead or until you feel your inner self is ready to lead, you will never be a leader.

Among Ibarra’s most telling perceptions is that “No one pigeonholes us better than we…do.” She finds that self-analysis leads to self-paralysis. If you construct a self-image from the inside out and hope external events will show you how to change or improve it, you hope in vain. For true leaders, self-analysis comes after action, never before it. 

Tell a “classic” story

Telling a good story boosts the recognition you’ll receive as a leader. Ibarra cites Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg to exemplify this phenomenon. Sandberg recognized how few women work in the Silicon Valley and talked to her colleagues about the root causes of their absence. The people who run TED invited her to speak on the subject. Her talk went viral and formed the basis for her best-selling book Lean In. Of course, Sandberg had an unusual level of access to TED and people connected to TED.

Most people understand the importance of agility…but people still find it hard to reinvent themselves, because what they are being asked to do clashes with how they think about their jobs and how they think about themselves.Herminia Ibarra

Ibarra’s advice about storytelling is sound. She suggests that all enduring tales have a “beginning-middle-end” structure and share crucial basic traits. Resonant stories need an engaging “protagonist” whom readers care about throughout the tale. Early in the story, a “catalyst” must force the protagonist to act. The catalyst upsets the natural balance, and the protagonist must restore order.

Halfway through the story, impediments generate vexation, disagreement and excitement. These problems challenge and form the identity of the protagonist. As the story ends, the protagonist reaches a “turning point,” and changes paths and methods to deal with the challenges ahead.

Evaluate your network.

To determine the strengths and weaknesses of your professional network, list up to 10 people you’ve turned to for guidance, for comments on your ideas, for help as you gauge a business opening or for assistance with strategic planning. As you consider these people, consider how the list pinpoints your network’s primary assets and significant shortcomings?

Lateral and vertical relationships with other functional and business unit managers…are a critical lifeline for figuring out how our contributions fit into the overall picture and how to sell our ideas, learn about relevant trends and compete for resources.Herminia Ibarra

Don’t give into the cynical feeling that networking is “insincere.” You are connecting with people on many levels for a variety of reasons, including genuine collegiality. Just because someone you’re networking with today can’t help you tomorrow, don’t conclude that networking is a poor use of your time. Your network is both a short-term and a long-term tool.

“Be playful.”

Ibarra believes two prime drives motivate people. The first is the urge “to be true” to yourself. The other is a refusal to engage in acts that make you feel false to yourself. Here she swerves from practical or tactical advice into something like self-help. She discusses the need to be authentic and to protect your integrity.

The capacity to motivate and inspire depends…on our ability to infuse the work with meaning and purpose for everyone involved.Herminia Ibarra

Ibarra makes a distinctive, perceptive case that notions of authenticity can entrap you when you must make a transition into new situations or unfamiliar roles. She advises you to be willing to trespass on “your own boundaries.”

Become a “chameleon.”

“True-to-selfers” always try to behave consistently – no matter their circumstances or context. They think this manifests authenticity. But Ibarra argues that an inflexible notion of authenticity leaves you unprepared to thrive in new circumstances.

Subtle (and not-so-subtle) shifts in our business environments create new – but not always clearly articulated –expectations for what and how you deliver.Herminia Ibarra

Instead, be a chameleon who embraces new modes of behavior and presentation when necessary. Chameleons “imitate” their co-workers’ and bosses’ demeanor – how they move, dress and speak. Chameleons adopt and discard personas as necessary to succeed or to seize and hold influence and power. Because they know who they are, Ibarra explains, such strategic and tactical shifts don’t threaten their identity or authenticity.

“Step up” to lead.

Ibarra’s academic style may be why she introduces each new term by saying, “I call this…” The constant repetition of that phrase might wear readers down. She also repeats some of her ideas, but most of them are compelling, at least the first or second time. Her concept that becoming a leader is a process that involves continual, incremental change runs through the book and is a particularly timely, compelling message. 

Ibarra believes that you can’t predetermine what sort of leader you will be. Instead, she says, to become a leader, embrace all aspects of leadership. Through this process of change, she says, you’ll discover who you are as a leader.

Adults are more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking than to think their way into a new way of acting. (management expert Richard Pascale)

Of course, you will face obstacles. Some will come from within you. To face new blockades, you must integrate your understanding of yourself, your situation and its context. A “major external move” – like a new job or career – won’t automatically fuel your growth as a leader. But, Ibarra reassures readers, significant change will occur when you embrace alternatives to your usual habits and cast aside what the people around you think you should do or become. Only you know what you can and should be.

Herminia Ibarra also wrote Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career.

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