Novices emulate favorite bosses and colleagues in an effort to look and talk as if they know what they are doing — even when they have no clue. It’s how they develop and grow (just as children do, first imitating their parents, then their peers). But this natural — and efficient — learning process tends to break down as people gain experience and stature. As we become more certain about what we “know” and who we are, the idea of mimicking others feels artificial, even distasteful. So we stick with what’s natural and comfortable. And that’s precisely what gets us in trouble as we hit career transitions that call for new and different ways of leading.
In my research on how experienced managers and professionals step up to bigger leadership roles, I have observed both the value and the difficulty of returning to our youthful, fake-it-till-you-learn-it strategies. The only way to pick up the “softer” skills that we need to lead with greater impact is to observe and emulate people who already have them, trying their strategies and behaviors on for size before making them our own.
Take, for example, Clara, an HR specialist who was promoted a level above her boss to become her company’s director of operations. The new assignment meant managing people who had been her superiors and overseeing functions, like finance, in which she had no expertise. “I understood in theory that a good manager should be able to manage areas without understanding the technicalities of the work,” she told me, “but in practice this made me feel like a fraud.”
At a loss for what to do, Clara decided to emulate people she saw as effective leaders. When she met with the finance manager, one of her new direct reports, Clara greeted her warmly, putting an arm around her shoulders as she’d seen her own boss do in the past. And in her first staff meeting, she tried out the blunt and direct way of speaking that she’d frequently noticed other directors in the company using.
“I went home exhausted each day from playing the role of ‘Director of Operations,’” she said. It was depressing — even embarrassing at times. Still, she persisted, adjusting her tactics along the way. After about a year, in the course of leading a successful meeting, she realized she had grown into the role. “As I began to gain confidence in my own ability to do this job, I also began to fall into a leadership voice that felt more like my own and less like an imitation of my former bosses.”
This kind of identity stretch-work comes more naturally to some people than to others. Psychologist Mark Snyder identified the profile and psychology of “chameleons,” people who are naturally able and willing to adapt to the demands of a situation without feeling like a fake. Chameleons have core selves defined by their values and goals but have no qualms about shifting shapes in pursuit of their objectives. Then there are the “true-to-selfers,” as I call them, those who view situational demands that push them away from what they do naturally as threats to their authenticity. Their self-definitions are more all-encompassing, including not only their innermost values, but also their leadership styles, speech, dress, and demeanor.
A quintessential chameleon, author Michael Lewis famously describes how imitation helped him transform himself from an inexperienced trainee into a highly successful bond salesman in his best-selling book Liar’s Poker. “Thinking, as yet, was a feat beyond my reach. I had no base, no grounding,” Lewis writes. “So I listened to the master and repeated what I heard, as in kung fu. It reminded me of learning a foreign language. It all seemed strange at first. Then one day, you catch yourself thinking in the language. Suddenly words you never realized you knew are at your disposal. Finally you dream in the language.”
People gravitate more readily to chameleon strategies like Lewis’ earlier in their careers, when it is easier to accept and express ignorance. With experience and success, our habitual ways of thinking and doing become more entrenched and our work identities solidify. We value authenticity, so we continue to act in accordance with our sense of who we are — even when it becomes patently ineffective. Unfortunately, the effort we put into protecting our “true” identities can really hold us back later in our careers, when we’re trying to build on past successes to take on new and bigger roles or responsibilities as leaders.
Suppose you have become known (and been rewarded) for your ability to use rigorous analysis to figure out solutions to organizational problems. What happens when you’re suddenly expected to start selling your good ideas to diverse, skeptical stakeholders outside your area of expertise? Intellectually, you know you need to persuade and inspire, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it. So, you put more work into your facts and figures — and when your ideas repeatedly go unheard, you conclude that the organization and its key players are “political.”
A better option is to look around to identify people who are good at selling their ideas — and watch carefully what they do and how they do it. People who use this strategy concentrate their efforts first on reproducing the behavior they have observed, even if they don’t fully understand it. Then with practice, like Lewis, they try “to get inside the brain of another person.” In their minds, they’re not being inauthentic — they’re simply evolving so they can get the job done. After a while, they find they have acted their way into a new way of thinking. They haven’t just developed their persuasion skills; they now value a different way of working and see themselves as the kind of people who are good at getting others on board.
By definition, transformative learning starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors. When we are working at improving our game, a clear and firm sense of self is a compass. It helps us navigate choices and work toward our goals. But when we are looking to change our game, a rigid understanding of authenticity is an anchor that keeps us from sailing forth. By viewing ourselves as works in progress, we multiply our capacity to learn, avoid being pigeonholed, and ultimately become better leaders. We’re never too experienced to fake it till we learn it.
This article first appeared on hbr.org.