Management: How to fake it till you learn it

Emulating effective managers is a good way to acquire skills

Novices emulate favourite bosses and colleagues in an effort to look and talk as if they know what they are doing – even when they have no clue. It's how they develop and grow (just as children do, first imitating their parents, then their peers). But this natural - and efficient – learning process tends to break down as people gain experience and stature.

In my research on how experienced managers and professionals step up to bigger leadership roles, I have observed both the value and the difficulty of returning to our youthful, fake-it-till-you-learn-it strategies.

The only way to pick up the “softer” skills that we need to lead with greater impact is to observe and emulate people who already have them, trying their strategies and behaviours on for size before making them our own.

Effective leaders

Take, for example, Clara, an HR specialist who was promoted a level above her boss to become her company's director of operations. The new assignment meant managing people who had been her superiors and overseeing functions, like finance, in which she had no expertise.


“I understood in theory that a good manager should be able to manage areas without understanding the technicalities of the work,” she told me, “but in practice this made me feel like a fraud.”

At a loss for what to do, Clara decided to emulate people she saw as effective leaders. When she met with the finance manager, one of her new direct reports, Clara greeted her warmly, putting an arm around her shoulders as she’d seen her own boss do in the past. And in her first staff meeting, she tried out the blunt and direct way of speaking that she’d frequently noticed other directors in the company using.

“I went home exhausted each day from playing the role of ‘director of operations,’” she said. It was depressing – even embarrassing at times. Still, she persisted, adjusting her tactics along the way.

After about a year, in the course of leading a successful meeting, she realised she had grown into the role. “As I began to gain confidence in my own ability to do this job, I also began to fall into a leadership voice that felt more like my own and less like an imitation of my former bosses.”

This kind of identity-stretch work comes more naturally to some people than to others. Psychologist Mark Snyder identified the profile and psychology of "chameleons," people who are naturally able and willing to adapt to the demands of a situation without feeling like a fake.

Chameleons have core selves defined by their values and goals but have no qualms about shifting shapes in pursuit of their objectives.

Then there are the “true-to-selfers,” as I call them, those who view situational demands that push them away from what they do naturally as threats to their authenticity.

Their self-definitions are more all-encompassing, including not only their innermost values, but also their leadership styles, speech, dress and demeanour.

Suppose you have become known (and been rewarded) for your ability to use rigorous analysis to figure out solutions to organisational problems.

What happens when you’re suddenly expected to start selling your good ideas to diverse, sceptical stakeholders outside your area of expertise?

Intellectually, you know you need to persuade and inspire, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it. So, you put more work into your facts and figures – and when your ideas repeatedly go unheard, you conclude that the organisation and its key players are “political.”

A better option is to look around to identify people who are good at selling their ideas - and watch carefully what they do and how they do it.

We’re never too experienced to fake it till we learn it.

In association with Harvard Business Review 2015 Herminia Ibarra is a professor of organisational behaviour at Insead. She is the author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader and Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career.