Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: February 1st, 2015 by bobmorris

Act Like a LeaderAct Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader
Herminia Ibarra
Harvard Business Review Press (2015)

What outsight is, how to develop it, and why leaders who possess it have much greater impact

Herminia Ibarra notes that research on how adults learn “shows that the logical sequence — think, then act — is actually reversed in personal change processes such as those involved in becoming a better leader. Paradoxically, we only increase our awareness in the process of making changes. We try something new and then observe the results — how it feels to us, how others around us react — and only later reflect on and perhaps internalize what our experience taught us. In other words, we act like a leader and then think like a leader (thus the title of the book)…This cycle of acting like a leader and then thinking like a leader — of change from the outside in — creates what I call outsight.”

Outsight is the core concept of this book. As Ibarra explains, the process of leadership development should be empirical and pragmatic. In essence, learn what works, what doesn’t, and why by involvement in action and experimentation. No doubt Yogi Berra had this in mind when he observed, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

Ibarra makes skillful use of several reader-friendly devices, notably a Summary at the conclusion of each of Chapters 1-5 and self-assessments (on Pages 20-21 146-147, and 180-181) that enrich a reader’s interaction with the material provided. The “Getting Started” sections (on Pages 68, 113, and 155) engage the reader in activities that also enrich experiential learning. I view these devices as being analogous to calisthenics that help to prepare the reader for plunging into new projects and activities at work and elsewhere, interacting with very different kinds of people, and experimenting with unfamiliar ways of getting things done. “Those freshly challenging experiences and their outcomes will transform the habitual actions and thoughts that currently define your limits. In times of transition and uncertainty, thinking and introspection should follow action and introspection — not vice versa.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Ibarra’s coverage:

o How Outsight Works (Pages 11-19)
o Avoid the Competency Trap (29-36)
o Understand What Leaders Really Do (36-58)
o Elements of a Good Story (63)
o We’re All Narcissistic and Lazy (73-78)
o Mindsets That Set Network Traps (78-84)
o The BCDs (Breadth, Connectivity, and Dynamism) of Networking Advantage (87-103)
o How to Network Out and Across (103-112)
o Chameleons and True-to-Selfers (121-129)
o The Trouble with Authenticity (129-132)
o Stretch Beyond Your Current Self-Concept (145-154)
o Process, Not Outcome (162-164)
o A Predictable Process 166-174)
o The Big Questions (177)
o Connecting the Dots (190)

As I worked my way through Ibarra’s lively and eloquent narrative, I was again reminded of an observation by Søren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Not everyone wants to become a leader. Not every aspirant can. Throughout history, the greatest leaders have been results-driven. They saw what must be done and set about to do it. If assistance was needed, they secured it. They demonstrate a trial by error process, learning so much more from their setbacks than from their triumphs. They are — and are perceived to be — leaders because they “do leadership.”

I share Herminia Ibarra’s hope that those who read her book will develop — over time — a more central and enduring identity as a leader. “Sometimes the journey leads to a major career shift; other times, the transition is internal: you’ve changed the way you see your work and yourself. It’s worth it. Start now. Act now.” To which I presume to add, “Bon voyage!

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