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Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader

4 min read
Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader - Leadership Transition.

When was the last time you stepped up to a bigger leadership role? Was yours a “Do-It-Yourself” (DIY) transition?

In her latest book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader  (2015, Harvard Business Review Press, 221 pages), professor Herminia Ibarra uses examples from her experiences leading INSEAD’s leadership transition program to examine how leaders successfully transition to bigger roles.

Ibarra argues that before you can “step up” from being an effective manager to a successful leader, you need to redefine your job, your network, and your leadership identity.  To do this, you need to develop what Ibarra calls “outsight.”

“The principle holds that the only way to think like a leader is to first act: to plunge yourself into new projects and activities, interact with very different kinds of people, and experiment with unfamiliar ways of getting things done,” according to Ibarra.  In contrast to insight, which tends to be based on internal knowledge, past experiences, and thinking, outsight is based on external knowledge, new experiences, and taking action.

Ibarra uses Chapter 1 of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader to build a case for outsight.  One of her most compelling arguments centers around a 2013 INSEAD survey of 173 executive program alumni, which found that “…among people who reported major changes in what was expected of them, only 47 percent had been promoted in the two years preceding the survey.  The rest were nevertheless expected to step up to a significantly bigger leadership role while still sitting in the same jobs and holding the same titles…This need to step up to leadership with little specific outside recognition or guidance is what I call the do-it-yourself transition,” says Ibarra.  She also found that while 79 percent of executives surveyed agreed that “what got you here won’t get you there,” most still found it challenging to reinvent themselves.

In Chapter 2, “Redefine Your Job,” Ibarra discusses the importance of taking a strategic approach (i.e., knowing what to prioritize, how to approach the work, and why it’s important).  Ibarra cites “…a classic study [by Fred Luthans, Academy of Management Executive 2, no. 2 (1988)] [that] compared managers who were rated highly effective by their own teams with managers who were successful in moving up to higher positions…The effective managers spent most of their time working with their direct reports inside their teams.  The successful managers spent much more time on networking activities with peers in other units and higher-ups throughout the organization.”

Since time is one of the most valuable resources available to leaders, Ibarra suggests that leaders create more “slack” in their schedules.  To better understand how you’re spending your time, Ibarra recommends a couple of helpful apps for time tracking and scheduling:  Toggl and ATracker, TIME Planner, and My Minutes. What action could you take this week to create more slack in your schedule?

In “Network Across and Out” (Chapter 3), Ibarra discusses how expanding your network can provide invaluable knowledge for your business and career.  According to Ibarra, “Your relationships are…the best way to change with your environment and industry, even if your formal role or assignment has not changed.  Without a good network, you will also limit your own imagination about your own career prospects.”

Ibarra shares a helpful framework for thinking about your network’s strategic advantage:  A = B + C + D.

Advantage:  The extent to which your network helps you step up to leadership
Breadth:  Strong relationships, diverse contacts
Connectivity:  Capacity to bridge groups/people who wouldn’t otherwise connect
Dynamism:  Connections that evolve as your leadership evolves
What action could you take this week to strengthen your network’s strategic advantage?

Chapter 4, “Be More Playful with Your Self,” gets at the heart of a frequent challenge for leaders when stepping up to bigger roles – feeling inauthentic.  Ibarra discusses the difference between “True-to-Selfers” (those who feel they must remain true to the idea of who they believe they are) and “Chameleons” (those who feel comfortable exploring new leadership identities).  She also suggests that it’s possible to be a “hybrid” – displaying characteristics of both.

As the title of chapter suggests, Ibarra recommends we that reframe how we think about the important “work” as leadership identity as “play” – an activity that’s enjoyable, a process of discovery.  How might your current leadership identity be supporting (or getting in the way of) your ability to step up to a bigger leadership role?   What one action could you take to be more playful with how you see yourself as a leader?

Ibarra uses Chapter 5, “Manage the Stepping-Up Process,” to bring together the previous sections of the book. “Stepping up to play a bigger leadership role is not an event or an outcome.  It’s a process that you need to understand to make it pay off,” according to Ibarra.

Ibarra outlines five stages that leaders tend to move through as they step up to bigger roles, including:  “Disconfirmation” (increase urgency), “Simple Addition” (add before you subtract), “Complication” (stick with it, persist), “Course Correction” (revise your goals), and “Internalization”(bring the outside back in).  She describes that personal change processes are typically non-linear – frequently moving in fits and starts.  What’s important is to keep moving – using new sources of outsight along the way.  If you’re currently in a leadership transition, which stage do you see yourself in?

Given the ever-increasing pace of business today, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader is a helpful resource for leaders who want to be more proactive with their leadership transitions, including and especially emerging leaders.  It offers a roadmap you can easily apply while “developing in place.”  And, while the book clearly outlines the benefits of outsight, it can also complement any introspection work you may have already completed.

“New ways of acting not only change how we think – our perspective on what is important and worth doing – but also change who we become,” says Ibarra.

If you want to begin changing how you think as a leader – act, now.

*Executive Coaching Connections LLC was acquired by Ariel Group in 2022. They are a global people and organizational development advisory firm that has successfully supported the biggest companies, public, private, and family-owned, and their most senior executives for more than 20 years. They are best known for their proprietary, 8-step coaching methodology which incorporates a holistic approach proven to drive desired results.


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