Great Leaders Act Before They Think

Author

Roger Trapp, Contributor

March 2, 2015

In business, as in other walks of life, great emphasis is placed upon thinking before acting. Only after careful consideration of the options can the right decisions be made, goes the theory. But is this necessarily correct? Herminia Ibarra, a professor specializing in leadership at INSEAD, believes that it is not.

When it comes to leadership, the way to produce the change of mindset required to become a better leader is to act differently rather than just think about it. In fact, acting differently is more likely to make you think differently. As she writes in her just published book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader (Harvard Business Press), “We only increase our self-knowledge 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.”

Ibarra, who has made something of a name for herself by challenging the current vogue for “authenticity” in leadership, cites plenty of historical evidence for her approach. Aristotle, she says, observed that people become virtuous by doing good things, while there is extensive social psychology research showing that people change their minds by first changing their behavior. But still there is allegiance to the notion of changing from the inside out. Why? Ibarra believes it stems from how leadership is studied. Researchers “all too often”, she says, identify high-performing leaders, innovative or authentic leaders and then set out to study who they are and what they do. “Inevitably, the researchers discover that effective leaders are highly self-aware, purpose-driven, and authentic.” But there is little information on how they got that way, so would-be students have little to go on in order to develop themselves.

Perhaps the answer lies in leaders becoming a little more sure of themselves. After all, others must have some faith in them, or they would not have been appointed in the first place. Ibarra suggests that leaders act like leaders by such means as proposing new ideas, making contributions in areas where they do not necessarily have expertise or connecting people to worthwhile goals. By behaving like leaders in this way they are likely to be recognized as such and so develop reputations that will lead to them getting bigger jobs. And so a virtuous circle would be started.

In keeping with the trend for coining phrases that are plays on old ones, Ibarra describes this cycle of acting first and thinking later “outsight”. It is the core of her book, she says, and is an especially important principle at a time of transition, for the simple reason that events may not allow a period of introspection and investigation (in which insights usually emerge) before action.

This makes sense, not least because it seems obvious that a true leader can no more announce that he or she is authentic then a brand can. Authenticity is an attribute bestowed upon leaders and brands alike by those with whom they come into contact. So perhaps we should be giving more credit to leaders who act fast and decisively.

This article was written by Roger Trapp from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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