Q & A

How Do You Become a Leader?

Shifting from roles based on technical skills into leadership positions involves not just a change in responsibilities but also an evolution of one’s values and sense of self. Herminia Ibarra, the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning at INSEAD and author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, talked with Global Network Perspectives about the process.

Q: What is a leader?

I define leadership behaviorally. A leader is somebody who is able to set direction for a group, and then mobilize them toward that goal. I don’t get into personality characteristics because it can vary a lot. The common factors really are big-picture strategic thinking and the capacity to influence people.

In terms of vision, it’s being able to sense what’s going on in the world, see the unexploited opportunities and lurking dangers, and use that to figure out what to focus on and what not to focus on. With influencing others, it’s how you get people to see your view, how you get them to see it as their issue, not just your issue, and how you communicate in a way that makes them feel motivated, inspired, involved, and a part of things.

Q: How do people come to see themselves as leaders?

That’s the interesting question. I looked at it because most people don’t see themselves as leaders. They don’t have that as an identity or a label. Early in people’s careers, most people’s labels for themselves have to do with their technical skills or their professional training. They see themselves as an engineer, an accountant, a marketing specialist.

Leader is a big amorphous word, and it’s almost arrogant to attach it to yourself. Transitioning from seeing your contribution in terms of the technical skills to seeing your contribution in terms of being able to marshal people towards something new is a process. Once you make an effort to influence a person or a group, and people increasingly recognize you for that capacity, it starts to feel like it’s legitimate, that you might be good at it, and over time you start to internalize the identity.

Q: You describe a common challenge among people seeking leadership positions where they struggle to carve out quiet time to reflect on what sort of leader they might want to be or to think strategically about new directions for the company. And you propose a different approach.

When you are at that juncture, try taking on new roles. Leadership isn’t something where there is a right answer or ideal model. You discover how you lead as you go along.

With some types of learning you can use your cognitive abilities to assimilate knowledge and then put it into practice. When what you’re trying to learn is connected to your identity, and when you’re not so sure about where it’s going or what the outcome of it is, instead of think-then-do, what works better is an experiential, discovery process. It’s trial and error where you are experimenting with new behaviors, keeping what works and discarding what doesn’t. It’s more iterative.

When it comes to leadership, for example, a lot of people are ambivalent about it. They have in their minds unrealistic hero images of fantastic leaders or very negative images of the political manipulator or the bad boss. They are not so sure what it would really looks like for them to lead. Trying it on experientially and getting the feedback from other people’s responses gives you the more personalized information that you need to more clearly formulate what you want and go towards it.

Once you have been out there doing things differently and have accumulated a range of new experiences that may be a good time to pause and think. How do they fit together? How does that clarify what I’m trying to reach for? What are some things I need to correct in what I’m doing?

Q: Where do authenticity and values fit in?

In terms of career development, there’s a tendency to hold on to a sense of authenticity that’s constraining as opposed to expanding. People end up pigeonholing themselves more than they realize. They think the real them is the past version, and that that basket of skills and preferences is what they’re going to have the rest of their lives. That’s not true. We evolve and change and develop new preferences. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to build on the strengths you’ve had in the past, but you can discover capacities you just didn’t know you had because you were not in a role that allowed you to develop them.

And it can be a means to minimize weaknesses. It will be the pull of the more interesting thing that actually helps you finally reduce your investment in the former way of doing things. People who aren’t good at delegating, well, they’re never going to start delegating just because theoretically it’s the right thing to do. They start delegating because they have found other things they want to do, and they don’t have enough time for everything.

That isn’t to say being stretched is easy. When people have to, all of a sudden, not just have good ideas or the right financial analysis, but sell ideas to stakeholders who are very different, who aren’t necessarily going to have the same criteria to evaluate the value of a proposition, they can feel like the new role requires them to value form over substance, to be political, and because of that it feels inauthentic. It feels like a waste of time to be selling, not doing. You could say that they’re staying true to their values, but those values that are very anchored in their old roles.

Values oftentimes change with success. I’m not talking about people starting to lie and cheat. I’m talking about what you think is a legitimate way to contribute and spend your time evolves as you have experiences doing different things and interacting with different parties. In trying to sell ideas to different stakeholders, you may come to see, in fact, that their needs, concerns, and questions are legitimate, given where they are.

Beyond that, we need to be somewhat careful about how authenticity is being framed. Jeffrey Pfeffer has written about how we’ve gotten all caught up in this warm and fuzzy rhetoric of leadership—purpose and meaning and soft power and collaboration. But it is not tied to any empirical evidence whatsoever. People have to pay attention to the political reality in every workplace. Of course, you can’t always be authentic. You can’t be totally transparent. You can’t say everything that comes to your mind. Sometimes you have to act more confident than you actually feel. It’s not a lack of integrity or a lack of moral core. It’s just life.

Q: Does gender play a role in developing as a leader?

We’re in a transitional period where there typically isn’t overt discrimination, but there is a sense of less benefit of the doubt—intangible, implicit bias. There is a lot about gender differences that is hard to define, but the robust finding is that the same behavior is interpreted very differently for men and for women. That’s why women get caught in double binds. Either you’re invisible or too visible.

For example, women are sometimes more hesitant than men about taking credit or positioning themselves individually because they know they’ll pay a higher price for self-promotion. But then they’re not viewed as the leader because they have framed the accomplishment as a collaborative effort. “What did she really do? She just facilitated that process.” I’ve seen that reaction a lot.

I’ve also seen a tendency for women to stick to operational results as concrete measures of their contribution. With objective indicators you feel less vulnerable to attacks on your authority. But that can also backfire. In one of my studies, we saw that women were rated higher than men in all leadership competencies except one. That one was visionary leadership, which is, of course, the defining one for a lot of people. In part, that is the result of women framing what they do in the measureable ways instead of the harder to define elements of vision and rhetoric. Over the course of a career, that makes it harder to move into the strategic, mission-critical jobs.

Another big issues is that too many women still advance through the staff-support track as opposed to the big-client, big-market, revenue-generating track. The stuff that’s viewed as more mission critical to the organization.

Q: What sort of organization will help people develop their leadership?

Ideally, organizations allow you to grow. A lot of my students describe bosses who basically want them to stay where they are, delivering what they’ve always delivered because they’re more useful that way. In those situations, extracurricular opportunities can be important. That might be a professional association or developing a network.

I talk a lot about networking in the book because it’s your relationships that give you everything you need; information, perspective, innovative ideas, access, everything. But a lot of times people will feel inauthentic when I tell them that they need to be more methodical about building up their networks. People feel that’s using people, and you shouldn’t take such a utilitarian or instrumental approach to building relationships.

They often realize that when you don’t take a more methodical approach, you end up building networks composed of people who are just like you. A network that not only won’t help you move forward, it doesn’t put you in a good position to help others because your connections are too homogeneous, your network doesn’t have enough reach and breadth.

Interviewed and edited by Ted O’Callahan.

Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning, INSEAD