Acting as If

Here’s a puzzle: how do you become something if you’ve never been something? For example, how do I become a leader if I’ve never been a leader? The conventional answer is to study how to be a leader and then gradually learn as you go along. I teach leadership at the executive level, so I have a pretty good understanding of how this process works. The problem is, it doesn’t really work.

Yes I can and so can you
Yes I can and so can you

The emphasis in current leadership learning is on behavior. Adaptive Leadership, Resonant Leadership, Situational Leadership are all about thinking or doing things a certain way and influencing people through your behavior. There’s nothing wrong with this, but imagine a young, inexperienced person, right out of B-school who has memorized the models, theories and matrices, then tries to implement them. This person knows she doesn’t have the depth of experience or tested proficiency to pull them off. Yet you will always find young leaders (ie; Obama), rising to the moment and leading with overwhelming support. What do people like Obama have or what do they do differently?

The answer lies not in what they do or have: it’s in who they say they are. This is not about fluency with words or charisma, it’s about being a leader in the mind first – the way in which they define themselves – that makes the critical difference.

Leadership is a set of competencies, like anything else. Take swimming, for example. You need the basic knowledge of swim strokes, the physical coordination to apply the mechanics and a willingness to be in the pool. But let’s say you’re really nervous when you first get in the pool (which is natural) and so you end up thrashing around. Over time, you become more practiced and a more coordinated swimmer. But this is not because you necessarily applied more effort or gained more knowledge. It’s because you became more comfortable with being a swimmer.

It’s the same with leadership, whether organizational or personal. Before you have something (results), you need to do something (behavior). And before you do something, you need to be something (vision). Though Goethe is credited with this Be+Do=Get relationship, the idea has been around a long time. It’s also easy to forget in such a results-driven world, where we focus on productivity (see Getting & Spending). This is probably why leadership theory focuses so much on behavior, especially strategy. But you can not do your way into leadership, you have to be it first.

If this sounds Zen to you, like Bill Murray in Caddyshack, advising Chevy Chase to “Be the ball”, I can’t say it’s not. What I do know is that character is central to leadership and character comes from our acting on the values and beliefs by which we define ourselves. This is where a leader like Obama stands out. His vision of leadership is so firmly anchored in who he believes himself to be, that it resonates through everything he says. This is sometimes called charisma and like leaders, it’s made, not born.

Most leaders “die with their mouths open”, says HBS Professor Ronald Heifetz (one of my favorite modern thinkers on Leadership) and that great leaders listen. More importantly, great leaders first listen to themselves and understand what they stand for. Heifetz also believes that great leaders help people face reality and mobilize them to change. Again, I believe great leaders are made from the inside out; they face their own reality before they can help people to face collective reality. Before you can lead others, you must lead yourself.

This is known in NLP as “Acting as if.” Once you begin to see yourself in a certain way, you will unconsciously manifest that and others will give you feedback to reinforce it. If you trust yourself, you manifest credibility, which leads others to trust you. If you’ve ever felt stuck in your career because you were lacking the respect of an advanced degree or seniority, that is acting as if you’re disempowered, which is how people will begin to treat you. This feedback reinforces your perceived lack of resources (knowledge, manpower, budget, experience) and proves you right: you are stuck.

Acting as if you had the resources, from a position of power (not arrogance or force) but from a positive envisioned future that we have yet to invent, you are engaging people as a leader. You can do this with your children, spouse, PTA, neighborhood council or anywhere else.

You can’t learn leadership in a classroom and the best training for leadership is to lead. Socrates once wrote, “The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.” This is not simply, “fake it until you make it”, but an enlightened approach to transformational change; becoming something you have never been before so that others are inspired to be likewise.