Leadership: Develop by Doing

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“I don’t know if I can do this. It’s just not me.”

John was an experienced police officer who’d just been promoted to Sergeant. That’s why he was in my supervisory skills class. I was suggesting that he do things like increasing the amount of legitimate praise and building on strengths of his teammates while making their weaknesses irrelevant. They were different ideas from what he was used to. He wasn’t sure he believed they’d work, and so he didn’t know if he could do it.

I gave him the same answer I gave to many other people in my classes over decades.

“Don’t worry about believing it at first, just try it. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it anymore. If it does, you’ve learned something.”

I told John something that I’d learned for myself. You don’t have to have complete faith in a technique to try it. I’d learned something else, too. If you do something over and over, it will become you.

That’s different than the way a lot of leadership training is designed and different from the message of many leadership writers. They suggest that you change the way you think so that you change the way you act. But I think it’s better going the other way. Change what you do and you’ll change the way you think. I’m in good company, so you don’t have to just take my word for it.

The Great Philosophers Knew It

No less a personage than Aristotle said that if you wanted to think virtuously you should act virtuously and your thinking would follow. That was also a principle of the Stoics. As Marcus Aurelius put it in his Meditations.

“Waste no time in arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”

Psychologists Have Rediscovered It

Daryl Bem’s self-perception theory posits that we affect our attitudes by what we do. But that’s only one strand of this thread of thought. As Jeffrey Pfeffer notes:

“One of the more robust findings in social psychology is that attitudes follow behaviors. After you have been a doctor, or a tax accountant, or a professor for long enough, you probably come to like what you have to do every day, and in many respects you also become the role you have been doing.”

There’s Even a Book About It

Herminia Ibarra has written a great book about this idea. It’s called, appropriately enough, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader. It’s a great book, but you don’t have to read the whole book to get the main point. If you want to become an effective leader, start by acting like an effective leader.

Becoming a Better Leader in Daily Life

The way you get better at almost anything is to make a little bit of progress every day. You don’t have to get a lot better all at once, just a little bit at a time. Pick something that effective leaders do. You can draw on your own experience for that, or you can find suggestions in my book, Become A Better Leader One Tip at A Time.

Decide on one thing to do tomorrow. Make a note that you can refer to during the day to remind yourself of what you want to do. During the day, refer to your note. Try the behavior you want to learn. In the evening, reflect on how you did, on what you could do differently, and then decide what you will do the next day.

How the Magic Happens

If you change a little bit, get a little bit better every day, you probably won’t notice the change in yourself right away. Down the road somewhere, some days, or weeks, or months, or maybe even years, you will suddenly realize that you’ve become the leader you wanted to be, and you became that way by acting your way into believing.

The 347 tips in my ebook can help you Become a Better Boss One Tip at a Time.

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