Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader

"You can only learn what you need to know about your job and yourself by doing it – not just by thinking about it."

- Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, page 1

Many professionals come to a point in their career when they feel they are ready to advance. Usually it involves a new job title with new responsibilities. But in interview after interview they are told that they don’t have the right experience. They don’t have enough experience as a leader. This brings up a perennially baffling question – how do you get leadership experience when you’re not in a leadership role?

This is the essential question that Herminia Ibarra explores in Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader. Through her research, she uncovered the essential flaw with how most professionals approach leadership experience. Most of us believe that we need to learn how to be a leader; that we need to be in a certain role to be a leader. But as Ibarra explains, we have it backwards. “You’ll need to change your mind-set, and there’s only one way to do that: by acting differently”. Ibarra’s research suggests that we go through both an internal and external process as leaders. “When we act like a leader by proposing new ideas, making contributions outside our area of expertise, or connecting people and resources to a worthwhile goal, people see us behaving as leaders and confirm as much”. Over time as our peers recognize us as leaders, we also begin to internalize our new identity as a leader. Ibarra goes on to outline three key areas that professionals can leverage to begin acting like leaders: redefining their job to make more strategic contributions, networking out and across to connect to and learn from a wider community, and being more playful with yourself to evolve your leadership style.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Leadership is about an action-oriented mindset

"Today more than ever, major transitions do not come neatly labeled with a new job title or a formal move."
- Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, page 7

In my own career, I can think of many times where I felt that I needed to learn more in order to lead. But the truth is that we can lead while we are learning! We don’t need to spend years in school, hours at seminars or days reading books. The best way to be a leader is to start acting like one. Ibarra suggests that as we act more like a leader, we will also begin to attract a wider network that can provide us with the resources to learn and grow as leaders. It’s something of an interesting paradox compared to how leadership is traditionally thought of. But it is the 21st century and in the business worl    d we are rethinking many of our traditional ways of doing things. It makes sense that leadership would be the same.

“No matter how long you have been doing your current job and how far you might be from a next formal role or assignment, this do-it-yourself environment means that today, more than ever, what made you successful so far can easily keep you from succeeding in the future”. The concept of the business world becoming more DIY seems reminiscent of startup culture, where initiative is a must. Ibarra’s point is that if we want to advance and be leaders, not only do we need to be open to doing things differently, we need to take initiative.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Redefine your job description

"Sports coaches tell us that amateur golfers spend too much time practicing their best swings, at the expense of the aspects of their game that need more work."
- Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, page 29

Think about what’s on your plate on an average day. Chances are the majority of it is answering emails, participating in conference calls, and attending meetings. Given how much of this routine activity can take over our schedules, it’s little surprise that we don’t have time for the strategic activities that we know we should be doing. Ibarra points out that the difference between management and leadership lie in their definitions. Management requires us to work towards set goals, follow processes and procedures, and so on. Yet, by its very nature leadership calls on us to work outside the lines to create change. In this sense, it is important to bring in elements of leadership to our job descriptions.

Ibarra suggests understanding our job as a platform for learning and doing other things. She suggests five things that we can all do to begin creating and expanding our platforms:

  • Develop your situation sensors
  • Get involved in projects outside your area
  • Participate in extracurricular activities
  • Communicate your personal why
  • Create slack in your schedule

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Be your authentic self

"When we are working at improving our game, our authentic sense of self is a compass. It helps us navigate choices and work toward our goals. But when we are looking to change our game, our authenticity is an anchor that easily keeps us from sailing forth."
- Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, page 117

Ibarra shares a story about her early days of teaching MBA students at Harvard, when she was struggling to be an effective teacher and facilitator. She realized the problem was that she was over-thinking everything, which caused her to be unable to find a leadership style that resonated. The advice here is that sometimes we have to get out of our usual patterns in order to find our authentic selves.

Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader is packed with practical advice for professionals no matter where they are at in their careers.

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Vanessa Chase

ABOUT Vanessa Chase

I am a fundraising strategist and copywriter, and run the non-profit resource website, Philanthropy For All. Through my work, my goal is to help passionate non-profit folks better articulate their non-profit’s impact and work is a way that translates to engaged philanthropic communities...
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