Book Review: Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader by Herminia Ibarra

  |   Books Print Friendly and PDF

Leadership transitions are always a challenge. It doesn’t matter if you’re assuming a leadership role for the first time, assuming a new role, or working to expand your influence while staying in the role or position you have, it’s always hard

Fortunately, there are several good books out there to help you. I think of them as books about “shedding your old self and moving up.” Two of the best of those are Scott Eblin’s The Next Level and Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader is part of that group, but different and distinctive.

Herminia Ibarra says that her book is about the process of learning to be a leader. It’s not so much about what kind of leader you should want to be. It’s about the process of becoming.

The Basic Premise

Most of the standard advice about how you grow into something new and learn new roles is that you start from the inside. Writers tell you to look for insight into what you are like and what you are good at. Then you should decide what you want to become. Ibarra goes back to Aristotle to recommend coming from a very different place.

“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.”

Instead of insight she labels what you’ll find starting from the outside as “outsight.” It’s what makes Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, distinctive and effective. There are three sources of “outsight.” There are new ways of doing your work. There are new relationships that create a new network. And there are new ways of connecting to and engaging people.

As I read it, I found that the process she outlines gave me different perspectives on a number of issues. It was powerful. The book is divided into five chapters, each with a specific topic and advice.

Chapter Overviews

Chapter 1 lays the groundwork for the rest of the book and outlines what Ibarra calls her “outsight” principle. She says that if you want to step into leadership, you have to learn to act like a leader. Because who you are today is a product of your past experiences and successes, it is hard for you to think your way into acting in the new ways you need to act. So, act first and learn from what happens.

Chapter 2 is titled “Redefine Your Job.” Ibarra talks about the competency traps that we fall into when we do more and more of the things that we are good at, get praised for, and are comfortable doing. When we fall into competency traps, we miss out on opportunities to learn to do other things that are also important and that may be more important in a new situation.

Chapter 3 is about networking. This isn’t the “networking” from self-help books. It’s networks as social organizations. You need to expand your network outside your current job and team, and perhaps company. You need to bring in other people who can help you make the transitions you want to make and share wisdom with you, because they’ve already been to the places you want to go.

The problem with trying new things, with learning by doing and creating a new kind of you is that it often feels false. So in Chapter 4, Ibarra suggests you should be more playful with yourself. What she does in this chapter is give you ways to try on new behaviors without threatening your authentic self and to develop an authentic self that fits your new situation as well as your nature.

Chapter 5 is about managing the stepping-up process. The big insight here is that stepping up to play a bigger leadership role isn’t something that you do once and then are done with. It’s a process. It takes a while. And if you understand it that way, you can keep working at it and keep developing.

A Very Well Written Book

There’s a lot of good material in this book, and it’s also very well done. There are lots of good references to studies and research, so if you want to know “why” or “what science says” this is an excellent book for you. Ibarra uses helpful sidebars and chapter summaries to make key points. I particularly like the way that she has learned from teaching MBA students. That gives her a range of examples that will be familiar to most readers.

Bottom Line

If you are in the midst of growing into a new leadership role, or if you are thinking about expanding your leadership influence, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader by Herminia Ibarra is a great book for you.


What’s the fastest way to learn the big ideas from a great business book? Book summaries. Check out summaries from The Business Source, where you can watch, read, or listen to the big ideas from a great book in under 20 minutes.

Join The Conversation

What People Are Saying