Published by Rachel Noel on 15th September 2016

Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, by Herminia Ibarra. Reviewed by David Sims

Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, by Herminia Ibarra

Harvard Business Review Press, 2015, 220pp, ISBN 978-1-4221-8412-7, £20

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Reviewed by David Sims

act-like-a-leader-think-like-a-leaderThis book immediately stimulated me in opposite directions. It is a general sounding book about leadership, and life is too short to read any more of those. It is by Herminia Ibarra, and she usually has something important and useful to say. I am glad I went with the second of those and read it.

Ibarra works at INSEAD and is used to having to present her material to people who may enjoy interesting ideas, but who also always want a practical value from their reading. Her starting point is not new, but it is unusual in leadership thinking. It follows the principle of cognitive dissonance, that our thinking is often shaped by our behaviour, whereas conventional thinking assumes that our behaviour is shaped by our thinking. She applies this to the development of leaders, who may need to experiment with doing leadership, and then let the ideas catch up. Change your behaviour, and your thinking will follow.

A lot of reflection on leadership is directed to the past. We are encouraged to learn from hearing stories about how other people have led, and from reflecting on our own experience. We deduce from this areas in which we might want to develop our leadership practice. But all of that is directed to the past, and Ibarra argues that what got us to where we are will prevent us from getting further. For example, results orientation and learning to drive things forward may be useful in junior leadership but will be counterproductive in more senior roles, which have more to do with the active creation of networks. It is easy for new leaders to try to work for their teams, rather than through their teams, to try to add too much value by ‘supporting’ everyone in what they are doing. This inhibits others from learning for themselves, and takes the leader away from their real job, which is to be a bridge to others, a provider of networks, not to be the hub to which their team has to relate and refer. The book is directed mostly to leaders in the private sector, but the appropriateness of such advice to church leaders is striking; the leader’s role is to be outward looking, to relate what is happening to the needs and the resources that are outside, rather than to focus on the functioning of the organization and whether everybody feels happy about it the whole time. This is described as ‘outsight’ rather than ‘insight’. She offers prescriptions in three areas; redefine your job, as above, network across and out and make that networking available to those who are working with you, and be more playful with your ideas about yourself. By this she means, ignore what you might say when asked what sort of person you are, or the answers you might give to a Myers Briggs questionnaire, and pay attention instead to what you see yourself doing, the choices that you find yourself making. Ibarra is an expert on identity, and has good grounds for her statement that ‘you don’t unearth your true self, it emerges from what you do’.

The book is full of wise but often counter-intuitive advice to enable the reader to put the ideas into practice. Ideas such as getting involved in projects outside your direct line of responsibility, especially if you do not have time to do so, on the value of being inefficient, and on acting before you have had time to make sense of what is going on. If you only read one general leadership book this year (or ever!), make it this one.

David Sims is Chair of Modem and Emeritus Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Cass Business School.

This review appears in MODEM Matters Issue 30, dated September 2015

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