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Berlin Brief

5 Questions With Herminia Ibarra

April 30, 2015

Herminia Ibarra is the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning, and Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD. As a well-known expert on professional and leadership development, Prof. Herminia Ibarra was ranked the 9th most influential business guru in the world by Thinkers 50. In her recent book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, Ibarra turns the usual leadership approach upside down.


1. Your new book turns upside down the usual leadership approach of thinking first then acting.  What initially prompted you to reconsider that approach and argue for learning through action? 

In the study that led to my first book, Working Identity, I saw that this was how people made big career changes. They tended to stay stuck in jobs they didn’t like because they had no idea of what they wanted to do instead. Reflection and self-assessment just made for analysis-paralysis. New careers always developed out of side activities – doing made people think differently about themselves and about what made for a good job and career.

When I started teaching executives in transition to bigger leadership roles, I saw a very similar pattern: people stayed stuck in unproductive habits (e.g., micromanaging) because they had no experiences that led them to want to do new and different things instead. Acting like a leader first, even if they weren’t sure where they wanted to go or what their “purpose” was, helped them find their way more quickly than the usual paper and pencil self-assessment.

Take for example, becoming more strategic and visionary. Many people get stuck on this because they can’t picture what it means. It takes small steps, trial, adjustment, and iteration. Each time you try something new, you learn, and it changes how you think about the problem the next time around. The abstract idea you can think about or even try to hone in your mind is a far cry from the flesh and blood strategist you need to become.

2. At the heart of learning through action is your concept of outsights, the external perspectives to be gained from direct experiences. Could you say more about these and how leaders can generate and benefit from them?

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 very different kinds of people, and experiment with new ways of getting things done -- and then observe the results of your actions. It’s the opposite of learning by self-reflection, in which we seek insight on our past behaviors. There are three ways you can generate outsight:

  • By redefining your job to make time for more strategic work and more work outside your function, unit and even organization,
  • By diversifying your network so that you connect to and learn from a bigger range of stakeholders, and,
  • By being more playful with your sense of self so that you allow yourself to experiment with styles of behaving that go against your nature.

3. Your call for learning from direct experience seems particularly challenging in some settings, for example, when working closely with clients, where the possibility of making instructive mistakes is not always an option. How does this work in practice?

You’re assuming that you have to experiment with the highest risk/visibility situations first! That would be a mistake for sure. What I recommend is getting involved in all kinds of side projects, task forces, and extra-curricular activities that provide safer settings for experimenting with different ways of doing things.

4. More generally, what are the key lessons of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader for building more effective and supportive relationships?

Most essentially, that this is the “real work” of leading and not a distraction from the real work.

5. Throughout the book, in recommending experimentation, re-casting relationships, and being more playful, you seem to discuss ways of acting and thinking that are increasingly associated with nurturing innovation.  Do you see any special connections between your approach and leading for creativity and innovation?

Absolutely, the parallels are very tight. The idea of outsight from diverse sources is one of the keys to innovation, as is the notion of “play” as I’ve applied to playing with your own self-concept. As well, all the network literature shows that innovation depends on the ability to connect the dots from disparate areas and bodies of knowledge. I always found it a bit strange that we did not apply to ourselves what we preach to organizations. But what are organizations if not groups of people who themselves have to avoid insularity and maintain a playful stance.

David Slocum Faculty Director Executiv MBA

Dr. David Slocum

Academic Advisor and Faculty Member
Berlin School of Creative Leadership