Leadership Evolution based on Action
A long time ago I read the book “Working Identity” by Hermina Ibarra. The basic idea of the book is that you could evolve from one career phase to another by doing things outside of the current role, as a preparation to a next role. The focus of career transition is not deep analysis and planning, but rather action.
The book “Act like a Leader” applies a similar thought to leadership and leadership evolution. The idea is that it isn’t through introspection that leaders can evolve in their role. It’s not about insight, but about outsight.
And so you can develop by changing the content of the job, changing the network and changing how you see yourself.
Are we confined to a Job?
But let’s ask ourselves. How difficult is it to redefine your job, your network, your self? Let’s start with a Job. Some people still think a function exists. The reification of the job description itself is a problem. Job descriptions are thoughts about how a job should or could be conceived. Even when it’s based on experience, the description itself becomes obsolete the moment its author hits the save button.
Nevertheless, some people still think we should confine someone to a job. This functional incarceration is unproductive and kills development. Leadership Development often fails because it does not take into account the levers and limitations the context in which leaders work offers. In restrictive environments doing what Ibarra suggests is revolutionary.
Leaving the premises of the job as designed, is an act of resistance, defiance. It shakes up the organization. Because reinventing the job can only mean two things. Either the leader takes existing territory and meddles with the responsibilities of others, or the leader enters unchartered territory and does new stuff.
We all know that an organization does not consist of mutually independent parts. There are always overlaps and grey zones. And what makes an organization tick is the willingness to collaborate to achieve a common target. Changing your job for the benefit of the organisation should receive applause, not criticism.
Leadership Evolution = Organizational Evolution
So if leadership evolution is about changing the way a leader acts (job, network, self), then it is also about changing the way an organization functions. And the question is if this should be a deliberate initiative or a process that should run its own course.
We know that job crafting just happens. People take a new role and the role changes. Two persons will never execute the same role in exactly the same way. They will always put their personality, insights, preferences, experiences into the role. And that’s a good thing. And this is also valid for leadership roles.
Job crafting is a spontaneous process. So I organisational evolution. If you want to change jobs and organisations deliberately than we could talk about job or organization design. In the latter leadership development as a deliberate act plays a crucial role. But leadership evolution is not (always) deliberate. It sometime happens. And when people change their roles, their networks and themselves by looking outside, then the organisation changes too.
In my book on sustainable leadership I describe how leaders should use their character as basis for their leadership. Because it’s the only aspect that provides stability. If leaders base their leadership on position, power, popularity or pressure, it’s not sustainable.
But that does not mean that there is no evolution. Leaders need to adapt to the circumstances. When Ibarra writes about using the principle of outsight on the self, I can only agree. Leaders work with who they are. And that’s why I don’t like the concept of authentic leadership. Authenticity suggests stability. But people change and so do leaders. The challenge is that they should change for the better. Dan Cable from London Business school talks about using your best self. The idea behind this is that you can strive to be(come) a better person. And that means using the best qualities you have, and maybe suppressing the less positive qualities.
Ibarra talks about the authenticity trap in her book. If you want to be authentic, you might feel a fake when you step up to (a higher level of) leadership. The challenge is to use your character as basis, but to decide how. And people should think about themselves in a future perspective. If being your stable self, means that you miss out on opportunities, then maybe you might consider evolving towards another self. But that does not mean you have to betray yourself. I believe if we have the courage to stick to our values and trying to be more effective at the same time leaders will still be seen as trustworthy.
Evolution is gradual, not radical. You cannot shed your job, your network and your self overnight. And that’s why leaders should experiment. Ibarra’s book gives some insights on how to handle this. Acting like a (better) leader, might help you to become a better leader. The same tactic might also help you to become a better person, a better parent, a better friend.