Looking forward and learning by doing beat backward introspection

Professor Herminia Ibarra believes top managers develop through experimentation

Traditionally, managers stepping into significant leadership roles are encouraged to think about what they will bring to their positions and the actions they will take. A different view on this leadership challenge is taken by Herminia Ibarra, professor of leadership and learning at French business school Insead. She believes new bosses should avoid long periods of introspection about their management roles and instead simply act, a practice that will grow their competency as good leaders.

"Thinking and introspection are things that need to follow action and experimentation and not the other way round because the experience of leadership is what changes the way you think and who you become," she tells The Irish Times.

Where traditionally people worried about gaining insight, Ibarra says they should be more concerned about gaining “outsight”, knowledge honed from experience and interaction on the job.

In an era when there is huge emphasis on the notion of authentic leadership, knowing who you are as a leader should not be the starting point on your management journey. As she puts it: “You don’t unearth your true self; it emerges from what you do.”


Contrary to popular opinion, too much introspection anchors us in the past at a time when we need to sail in uncharted waters. Instead, having outsight helps to rid you of past sources of self-esteem, old goals and old habits and gives leaders new relevance and purpose, she says.

Her ideas are encapsulated in her new book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader. Ibarra is a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council and consults with a wide number of companies globally in the areas of leadership development and talent management. She has a special interest in the area of women in leadership.

The process of becoming a leader is not a linear process, she cautions. “The transition involved is rarely the upward and onward progression you would like . . . The transition moves forward and then falls back repeatedly but at some point, if you learn enough along the way, the transition sustains its momentum.”


One of the major problems Ibarra sees for senior managers is that all too often they are drowning in a sea of day-to-day detail and reporting tasks.

“Organisations have been tightening the screws on performance and people have a lot of operational things to deliver on. The pressure is to be constantly faster. It may seem counterintuitive but when you are most busy is when you need to take some time out to see the bigger picture,” she says.

Networking is extremely important, she believes. “It’s vital to be able to sense what’s going on in an industry, and the best way to do that is by talking to people. That’s also the best way of getting buy-in from people in your organisation.”

However, not everyone agrees. Ibarra says that many of the managers she teaches on her executive development programmes find networking insincere or manipulative. Some see it as a way to gain favours from strangers, with strings attached as obligations to return those favours. Some even reported that networking made them “feel dirty”.

She says it is important, however, to distinguish between operational networks, which are about managing day-to-day tasks and are essentially internal to the organisation, non-discretionary and short-term; personal networks, which are about growth and are mostly external; and strategic networks, which are both internal and external and are about generating strategic ideas and getting support for them.


Ibarra cites an academic study that shows that confidence levels have a lot to do with comfort levels around networking. In general, senior people feel less conflicted about professional networking because they feel that they have something to offer.

Those in lower level positions, meanwhile, are more likely to doubt the worth of their contributions, feeling more like supplicants than peers in a reciprocal, mutually beneficial exchange.

As someone who has worked on both sides of the Atlantic, Ibarra doesn’t get a major sense of cultural difference between European and North American business styles, seeing an increasingly blended corporate culture in larger organisations. While she says there is a danger in over-generalising in regard to gender, she does see differences in the challenges men and women face.

“Young women in organisations have far fewer role models than men, so they have to learn more from their own personal observations,” she says.