Act Like A Leader Turns Leadership Research On Its Head


A well researched book that posits that great leadership is a function of experimentation rather than introspection.

Act Like A Leader

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How many times have you heard that leaders are taught and not born? Hmm – I’d say about a million times. In fact, it’s spurred an entire cottage industry of books, seminars, speakers and the like who are intent on showing us that introspection will help us get to our “authentic leadership” style and if you just think like a leader, you’ll start acting like one.

Well, if you ask anyone (especially small business owners), they’ll tell you that we’ve been experiencing a leadership crisis. It seems that true leaders, the ones we look up to and want to emulate, are few and far between.

Not only that – but they aren’t always warm and fuzzy people.

So what’s the catch?

True Leadership Comes from Experimentation, Not Introspection

I’ve just received a review copy of an interesting book that goes against the grain on how leaders are “made” – Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader by Herminia Ibarra (@herminiaibarra).

Let me tell you a little about the author first, so that you can appreciate her viewpoint and get a real feel for this new leadership book.

Herminia Ibarra is the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning and Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD. This book is based on the Leadership Transition, an executive program at INSEAD that Ibarra directs and created for managers moving into broader leadership roles. She’s also an accomplished author as well as being ranked #9 among the Thinkers90 list of the most influential business gurus in the world.

In the first chapter of the book she says:

“The fallacy of changing from the inside out persists because of the way leadership is traditionally studied. Researchers all too often identify high-performing leaders, innovative leaders, or authentic leaders and then set out to study who these leaders are or what they do.

I have found that people become leaders by doing leadership work. Doing leadership work sparks two important, interrelated processes, one external and one internal. The external process is about developing a reputation for leadership potential or competency that can dramatically change how we see ourselves. The internal process concerns the evolution of our own internal motivations and self-definition. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but rather, in our relationship with others.”

You’ll Have to Read the Book to See if You Agree

Ibarra’s findings are filled with practical lessons from inspiring leaders of all types:

  • Former Ogilvy & Mather CEO Charlotte Beers advises leaders to remember that “you are not the work”, it’s who they are not their analysis that persuades and inspires best.
  • Bruce Lee lived by the mantra “Be Like Water” to adapt to new situations and grow from them.

Act Like a Leader has lots of tips as well:

  • Be more playful with your 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 resume.
  • Create and use networks to tap into new ideas, connect to people in different worlds, and access radically different perspectives.

I have to admit that I’m not wild about some of the insights and ideas that are put forth in this book. For example, one of Ibrarra’s findings comes from writer Michael Lewis who says that he learned that it’s better to be a chameleon than a true-to-selfer.

Personally, I think a lot of corporate and political problems come from leaders who stand up in front of the media or audiences and poorly pretend to be someone they are not. So I think some of this advise has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Overall, this book will turn whatever you thought about what it means to be a leader on its head. And this is a fantastic exercise for all of us who are constantly learning and growing into being the best leaders we can be.

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1 Comment ▼

Ivana Taylor Ivana Taylor is the Book Editor for Small Business Trends. She is responsible for directing the site’s book review program and manages the team of professional book reviewers. She also spearheads the annual Small Business Book Awards. Ivana publishes DIYMarketers, where she shares daily do-it-yourself marketing tips, and is co-author of "Excel for Marketing Managers."

One Reaction
  1. Ivana,

    This is a good approach to developing one’s leadership capacity. I am hearing that our capacity to lead already exists within us, and if we want to become leaders its about acting that way rather than becoming a different person. Leadership is a role, or function we perform, rather than another state of being (someone else). Would you agree?

    I agree with you that becoming like chameleons is very tricky, however I do think change is an important part of being true-to-yourself.

    It’s okay to change your ‘hook’ to keep things interesting for yourself and your audience, but it is another matter if you do not follow through on your promises. Whether they are your clients, employees, or voters they deserve your respect. Without followers there would be no leaders.

    Thank you!