Interview With Herminia Ibarra: Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader

Herminia Ibarra is one of the finest thought-leaders on leadership. She is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD, she served on the Harvard Business School faculty for thirteen years.  Ibarra ranks #9 among the Thinkers50 list of the most influential business gurus in the world. In her new book “Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader,” Ibarra argues that you have to act your way into a new type of leadership thinking instead of thinking your way into it. I hope my interview Herminia sheds light into her fascinating research on leadership development.

1. What’s wrong with managing our careers the traditional way through self-reflection? 

Herminia: Most of us have been told that increasing your self-awareness is the route to changing your professional journey. But this approach assumes that people don’t change fundamentally over the course of their career, and therefore, that they can find everything they need to know if they just look deeply enough inside themselves. This is a big problem for two reasons: First, the more successful we are, the more vulnerable we are to limiting mindsets in how we define our work and ourselves, and, Second: The world of work is changing is changing too fast. Chances are you just don’t have what you need to know “in” you already adapt to all this change. Instead, you need to plunge in.

2. Why is focusing on “authenticity” a trap that won’t help us evolve as leaders?

Herminia: Authenticity means many different things to different people: not putting on a show, being true to one’s values, being transparent etc. But, in practice, for lots of people , it actually means, “being as I have always been.” The thing is you can be “authentic” – and highly ineffective – which is what happened when people fail to adapt to a changing world. There is no getting around the fact that anything that gets us out of our comfort zone – for example, any new and unfamiliar leadership behavior – will feel  inauthentic and contrived at first.

3. Why is acting your way into a leadership role a more powerful tool than thinking your way into one?

Herminia: Anyone who has ever read the latest book about how to  lose weight or exercise better knows there’s always a huge gap between what we know and think and what we do. This is especially true when it comes to the kind of learning involved in becoming a leader: It’s tacit, behavioral, connected, and personalized knowledge.

Take for example, becoming more strategic and visionary. Many people get stuck on this because they can’t picture what it means. It takes small steps, trial, adjustment, and iteration. Each time you try something new, you learn, and it changes how you think about the problem the next time around. The abstract idea you can think about or even try to hone in your mind is a far cry from the flesh and blood strategist you need to become.

4. What is “outsight” and how does it offer leaders a perspective that insight can’t?

Herminia: Outsight is the fresh, external perspective you can get when you do new and different things – plunge, ourselves into new projects and activities, interact with very different kinds of people, and experiment with new ways of getting things done – and then observe the results of your actions. It’s the opposite of learning by self-reflection, in which we seek insight in our past behaviors. Outsight often surprises us, paving the way for radically new patterns of thought and action.

5. How can our desire to be “authentic” impede our ability to transition into new and unfamiliar roles and keep us in our comfort zone?

Herminia: Stepping up to leadership requires all of us to move way beyond our comfort zones. At the same time, it can also trigger a strong countervailing impulse to protect our identities. When we are unsure of ourselves or of our ability to perform well or measure up in a new sitting, we often retreat to familiar behaviors and styles.

6. How can you change the way you act while maintaining a sense of authenticity?

Herminia: It requires a playful frame of mind. Think of leadership development as trying on possible selves rather than working on yourself – which, let’s face it, sounds like drudgery. When we adopt a playful attitude, we’re more open to possibilities. It’s OK to be inconsistent from one day to the next. That’s not being a fake. That’s how we experiment to figure out what’s right for the new challenges and circumstances we face. By viewing ourselves as works in progress and evolving our professional identities through trail and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations’ changing needs.

7. Are there particular challenges that women face when tasked with acting like a leader?

Herminia: The leadership transition is particularly challenging for women because they must establish credibility in cultures that equate leadership with behaviors that are more typical of men and where powerful female role models are scarce. When women lead in less conventional ways – crafting a vision collaboratively, for example, rather than boldly asserting a new direction – their contribution and potential is more likely to go unrecognized. This is compounded by the human tendency to gravitate to people like oneself which leads powerful men to sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise. Subtle gender biases like these disrupt the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader.

8. What are 3 quick tips for how people can apply your approach at the office tomorrow?

1. Signup for one new project, task force and, professional association or extracurricular professional activity that takes you a bit outside your usual area of expertise.

2. Reach out to three people in your company you always wanted to get to know and ask them for lunch or coffee.

3. Identify two people whose leadership you admire and start watching them closely. What do they do especially well? Try to adopt some of what they do.