Develop Leaders From the Outside In

Herminia Ibarra Leadership Chief Learning Officer

Increasing leadership capacity is an increasingly important part of a company’s business strategy. Unfortunately, formal leadership development efforts often fall short of expectations. At best, managers gain valuable personal insights but fail to learn how they can apply them to create value for their organization.

As managers step into bigger leadership roles, there are pitfalls to popular, self-awareness-centered approaches to develop their leadership capabilities. There are alternative paths learning leaders can take to achieve the transformative results desired.

Prepare people for “do-it-yourself” transitions. Many managers wait for a formal job move or new assignment to start transforming leaders. But subtle — and not so subtle — shifts in today’s business environment create new expectations for leaders’ behavior before their job titles change.

Effective leadership development starts by helping people recognize when they are in a do-it-yourself leadership transition. Then guide them to make three important changes in behavior:

1. Make day-to-day work more strategic. Most managers allocate too much time to routine operations. They must redefine their jobs away from the work they prefer to do and do best to contribute more strategically.

2. Diversify networks. Most managers get their information and support from a narrow range of usual suspects. To develop a more strategic view of the business, they must diversify their networks beyond their immediate functions and units.

3. Transform leadership style. Most managers have stylistic strengths and weaknesses that allow them to perform in certain situations and fall short in others. They must experiment with unfamiliar and seemingly inauthentic ways to influence and inspire people.

Aim for outsight first. Traditional leadership training aims to change the way we think, assuming if we start to think like a leader, then we’ll act like one. It assumes the knowledge a person needs to change can be discovered by introspection. This method does not produce sustainable change because the only way to alter the way you think is by doing the very things habitual thinking keeps you from doing.

A more effective alternative is based on seminal research in social psychology showing that people infer their qualities and competencies by observing what they do, while at the same time failing to behave according to their stated views. If the way we act drives how we think, then the key to change is increasing outsight — the fresh, external perspective that comes from doing new, different things. Outsight comes from plunging ourselves into new projects and activities, interacting with people outside our daily routines and experimenting with new ways to get things done.

It’s about identity, not competencies. The way we typically study leadership sustains the fallacy of changing from the inside out. We identify high-performing or innovative leaders and, inevitably, we discover they are highly self-aware, purpose driven and authentic. But knowing their competencies does not tell us how they got them.

People become leaders by doing leadership work. Acting like a leader — proposing new ideas, making contributions outside our area of expertise or connecting people and resources to a worthwhile goal, for example — sparks two important, identity development processes, one external and one internal. The external process develops a reputation for leadership potential; others’ endorsement can dramatically change how we see ourselves. The internal process evolves a person’s identity; as people come to see themselves as leaders, they seize more opportunities to lead.

The self-awareness goals for most leadership development efforts are sound, but the methods we use to attain them are insufficient. Who you are as a leader is not a fixed, starting point in a development journey. It’s the outcome of a learning process powered by a person’s increasing outsight.

The time has come for the pendulum to swing away from individually focused, self-reflective training toward action in service of personal andorganizational change.

This article first appeared on Chief Learning Officer.