by Mina Simhai

You don’t unearth your true self; it emerges from what you do.
—Herminia Ibarra

Taking action is the crux of Herminia Ibarra’s latest book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader. She suggests swapping our journals and introspection for rolling up our sleeves and stepping into leadership—now, not when we receive a promotion, an invitation, or a raise. This way, when those formal leadership roles open up, we are more likely to be considered.

Starting with action, rather than thinking, is the key because, according to Ibarra, “the paradox of change is that the only way to alter the way we think is by doing the very things our habitual thinking keeps us from doing.” So we act first, and then our thoughts start to change based on our actions.

Ibarra’s tool of choice is her “outsight principle.” Practicing outsight means we redefine our jobs, our networks, and ourselves. We must build each of these three elements, like a tripod, so our leadership style has a firm platform.

Redefining Our Jobs
You are great at what you do. Now, go do less of it. This is what leadership feels like to many of us. We are stepping up to leadership because we’re really good at our jobs—the technical skills, hitting deadlines, delivering results. Yet leadership requires us to rise up out of the details and become more strategic.

We get snared in a “competency trap,” according to Ibarra, when we do more of what we’re best at—continually improving our existing skills rather than developing other important ones. “Over time, it gets more costly to invest in learning to do new things,” she writes. It’s tricky: Falling into a competency trap might garner great performance reviews and a strong bottom line, yet it doesn’t set us up for the next big job. In fact, Ibarra writes that falling into a competency trap prevents us from learning four essential leadership skills: 1) bridging across people and groups, 2) envisioning new possibilities, 3) engaging people in the change process, and 4) embodying the change.

Ibarra offers concrete tools to redefine our jobs, such as getting involved in projects outside our area of expertise. I did this when I was an in-house lawyer with the Millennium Challenge Corporation. I developed relationships with people outside my department and project teams; I met and advised new colleagues internally (many of whom were senior); and I broadened my network by meeting with people from other agencies and organizations. While this did increase my visibility internally and externally, I volunteered to do it because I found it interesting, and I had relevant experience to boot. Long before I had even heard of Herminia Ibarra, I was stepping into leadership not for leadership’s sake, but because I sought a fun, interesting challenge.

Redefining our jobs can mean doing more of what interests us, using skills that are lying latent, participating in extracurricular activities, and developing relationships with people at other companies or in other departments—in short, it can even be fun.

Redefining Our Network
Ibarra says that we tend to be narcissistic and lazy when it comes to networking. Ouch. Not surprisingly, we are most likely to schmooze with people who are like us and who are geographically close to us. Yet, in order to obtain the strategic advantages networking offers, we want what Ibarra calls the BCDs of networking advantage:

Breadth: strong relationships with a diverse range of contacts
Connectivity: the capacity to link or bridge groups of people who wouldn’t meet otherwise
Dynamism: a network that evolves with you and your aspirations.

To build the BCDs requires forethought. Going to cocktail hour and chatting with the people who are easiest to talk to isn’t going to cut it. We need to know who will be there, consider where we want to be in the future, decide who we want to connect with, make it happen, and follow up. It might even look like organizing the working group or panel discussion, rather than just showing up. For some of us (myself included), this could sound daunting. Yet the only way to step into leadership is notice those feelings and do it anyway.

As I write this, I feel pangs of regret over skipping out on a networking opportunity at the university where I teach this past weekend. I was “too busy” with my family and friends, and doing work for my “real job.” I missed an opportunity to craft a network with more breadth, connectivity, and dynamism. I fell into a couple of the traps Ibarra identifies: I didn’t think of networking as real work (I stayed home and graded papers instead), and I focused on more urgent tasks because networking has a longer-term payoff. Now that I have read Chapter 3 of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, I will strive to make a different decision next time. Also, I will strive to build more slack into my schedule (another tip from Ibarra) so that, when those opportunities come up, I’m not as swamped with the day-to-day and it becomes easier to say yes.

Redefining Ourselves
Through the process of redefining our jobs and our networks, we redefine ourselves— based on what we notice ourselves doing and who we rub elbows with. Acting like leaders sparks a change within us, and we begin thinking like leaders. Why? Because when we act “as if” we are a leader, we fake it until we become it (remember Amy Cuddy last month?). Acting differently spurs us to think differently. We practice outsight, and we start to become more insightful leaders.

What are your insights about outsight? Let’s chat about them on Tuesday, April 5, from 7:30–8:30 pm EST. Here are the call-in details:

Dial in: 323-476-3997
Conference ID: 218555#
International callers, please find your call-in number here.

You can also leave a comment about this blog post below, or start a discussion thread.

Mina Simhai earned her Certificate in Positive Psychology from the Wholebeing Institute, and served as a teaching assistant for CiPP4. She is also a recovering lawyer, yoga teacher and mother. Her latest project is bringing the tools of positive psychology to lawyers and others in the DC area and across the country. Her top strengths are judgment, love of learning, curiosity, love, and appreciation of beauty. Mina is an avid reader and looks forward to launching the WBI Book Club with you.