How to Act Like a Leader

Why ‘be yourself’ isn’t the best advice for a new leader.

By Dori Meinert Oct 1, 2015
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HR Magazine October 2015Whether you’re newly promoted into a high-level position or a long-tenured leader grappling with an ever-expanding role, you have probably read a book or an article at some point urging you to “be your authentic self” or “reflect on your strengths and values” to become a better leader.

Introspection is a common theme in leadership development today. But that approach may be holding you back.

The only way to become a leader is to first act like one, says The only way to become a leader is to first act like one, says Herminia Ibarra, an organizational behavior and leadership professor at the international graduate business school INSEAD, where she directs a leadership transition program for executives.

Personal change happens from the outside in, not the other way around—a fact that’s been validated by a wealth of social psychology research.

So, urging leaders to “be themselves” conflicts with what they actually should be doing—stepping outside their comfort zones to gain novel experiences, meet different people and learn new things, says Ibarra, author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015).

“Self-reflection is always going to anchor you in the past, on what you have loved to do and been good at in the past,” she says. The only way to get beyond that is “to create a new base of experience that you can reflect on once you have it.”

She says that people moving into greater leadership roles have told her that they feel inauthentic or fake. “It made them feel they had to make a trade-off between being themselves and being effective,” she says.

For example, technical experts who are promoted to leadership roles may initially be reluctant to sell their ideas to those who don’t have the same expertise. “They’re not about the glitz and the snazzy argument; they’re about real substance,” she says.

Others have trouble letting go of familiar tasks from their prior jobs because that’s what won them the promotion in the first place, so they micromanage their staff and lose sight of the bigger picture.

Rather than developing insight into their past behaviors, leaders need “outsight,” which Ibarra defines as the fresh, external perspective you get from doing new and different things.

She suggests three steps to take to develop this quality and become a better leader:

Redefine your job. Make room for more-strategic work. Get some new experiences outside of your function, unit or even organization. “Often times, people don’t see those new opportunities until they sign up for a new task force, a new work area [or] an industry association program, which can help them see how different things connect,” she says.

Diversify your network. Most people network with people who are from the same specialty and company. “How can you possibly be visionary when your networks are not?” Ibarra asks. “As you do new things, your network grows. As your network grows, it shows you glimpses of what you can do,” she says.

Be more playful with your sense of self. It may help you to step outside your comfort zone if you view it as a trial run rather than a full-blown commitment. “People don’t want to commit to what they don’t know,” she says. “The idea of playfulness, experimentation, can be freeing.” Trying out different communication styles isn’t about losing substance, it’s about figuring out which approach works best.

The best leaders act like “bridges,” linking their teams to outside ideas and resources, rather than just “hubs,” putting their teams at the center of their work, Ibarra says. While both are important, “bridges” gain an external perspective that helps them develop long-range strategies and visions of the future.

In developing your leadership skills, introspection can certainly help—but only after you’ve had some new experiences to reflect on.

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.

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