Aristotle observed that people become virtuous by acting virtuous; if you do good, you’ll be good. His insight has been confirmed in a wealth of social psychology research showing that people change their minds by first changing their behavior. Simply put, change happens from the outside in, not from the inside out.
I elaborate on this thought that forms the centerpiece of my recent book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader. I stress the need to try something new and distill the learnings from the experience in the journey up the leadership ladder.
Most leadership books and courses lead us to believe that we will discover our ‘authentic leadership’ style with a healthy dose of introspection and reflection about ‘who we really are’ and how to ‘play to our strengths.’ If you just try to think like a leader, you will start acting like one, so they say.
But, as much research shows, it is only by behaving differently that we actually start to think differently, not the other way around. Contrary to popular opinion, too much introspection anchors us in the past and amplifies our blinders. It shields us from discovering our leadership potential and pigeonholes us as our past selves instead of pointing the way to the self we can be. This type of inside-out thinking can impede change and hold back careers.
A more effective alternative, I have found, is to help executives to act their way into a new way of thinking by developing what I call ‘outsight’. Outsight is the fresh, external perspective you can get when you do new and different things — plunge ourselves into new projects and activities, interact with different kinds of people, and experiment with new ways of getting things done —and then observe the results of your actions. It is the opposite of learning by self-reflection, in which we seek insight on our past behaviors. Outsight is more necessary than ever in today’s fast-changing business environment.
My studies of people in transition to bigger leadership roles show that there are three things executives can do to increase outsight:
1. Make your day-to-day work more strategic: most executives still allocate too much time to routine operations, solving today’s problem, and executing on immediate directives. None of this will give you the more strategic perspective you need to contribute at a higher level. But you cannot get a strategic perspective by sitting around the office. You only get a big-picture view when you get involved in activities outside your area of expertise, your organization, and even your industry. Sign up for a new project, task force, professional association, or extracurricular professional activity. They will help you learn new skills and broaden your horizons.
2. Diversify your network: most people get their advice, information, and support from a narrow range of usual suspects. This limits your capacity to think broadly and strategically about your business and then to get buy-in for your ideas. You need to diversify your network so that you connect to and learn from a bigger range of stakeholders. As a first step, start reaching out to people in different parts of your company or industry; go for coffee or lunch, learn what they do, how they contribute to their organization, and how it may apply to your work.
3. Transform your leadership style and identity: Executives have stylistic strengths and weaknesses that allow them to perform in certain situations and fall short in others. To influence and inspire a broader array of people, you have to broaden your repertory. But doing what does not come naturally feels like a violation of the leadership identity you have developed with past experience and success. One strategy is to identify two or three people whose leadership you admire and start watching them closely. Observe what they do especially well and try to adopt some of what they do. You are not being a fake; you are learning by doing. The trick is to work toward a future version of your authentic self by stretching way outside the boundaries of who you are today.
Making significant changes, not just in what we do but in how we do it, requires a playful frame of mind. Take, for example, the shift from having good ideas to being able to sell them to a broad and diverse set of stakeholders. Many inexperienced leaders find the process of getting buy-in distasteful and ‘inauthentic’ because it feels artificial and political; they believe their work should stand on its own merits. They do not do [it] only because they lack the skill set but also because they are not sure they want to be the kind of person that behaves that way.
That is why I recommend that people approach the natural authenticity challenges that are part and parcel of stepping up to a bigger leadership role with a playful mindset. When we adopt a playful attitude, we are not committing to become a specific kind of leader, but to a process of experimenting. We are more open to a diverse, even divergent, set of possibilities. By viewing ourselves as works in progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations’ changing needs. Knowing the kind of leader we would like to become is not the starting point of our development journey, but rather the result of increasing our outsight.
Today, more than ever, with technological disruption lurking around every corner, we cannot remain relevant without continuously working to increase ‘outsight’ on our jobs, through our networks, and on ourselves. You may not see, as you start branching out beyond your routine work, where the journey is going to take you, but the ‘outsight’ you gain from these new ways of acting will slowly change the way you think about your work and yourself. We start by doing, we reflect on our experiences, and we rethink ourselves. And we grow.