3 Surprising Ways to Step Up as a Leader

business woman standing with team behind her

“Disruption” has become such a familiar experience—in workplaces and the world in general—that many have considered it an overused cliché for years. But have you ever considered the benefits of disrupting yourself as a pathway to greater leadership?


Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the London Business School, would invite you to consider it.


Her reason is this: As we progress in our careers, we tend to credit our strengths and then increasingly rely upon them in the hopes of achieving more and more success. But when the world around us changes, we can end up overly depending upon those strengths, not recognizing that they may not be as relevant as they used to be.


“I call it the what-got-you-here-won’t-get-you-there dilemma,” Ibarra says.


Take, for example, the fact that research shows that as people rise in leadership positions, specialty expertise becomes relatively less critical. In contrast, broader strategic acumen and so-called soft skills become increasingly more important.


So, why don’t we all make the change?


“It’s not that the strategic or soft skill stuff is so hard to learn,” says Ibarra. “It’s the old way of operating that what got you here has become central to how we define ourselves. It’s not just what we do. It is our identity, and it’s tough to move away from who you are.”


The solution: Disrupt yourself! Here are three ways Ibarra suggests doing that:


Redefine your job


“Make it a platform for your learning, tailoring it to you and your needs. Think of your job as a portfolio and make sure there are parts of that portfolio that let you experiment and learn new things. We have to create ways of ensuring we always have some side projects going on that allow us to learn the new and to connect to the bigger picture.”


Network more broadly


“Most of us are not good networkers. We think it’s essential. But our networks are not as good as they need to be because we don’t devote the time and attention to them to make them good.


Our networks don’t have the diversity and the breadth that we need them to have to improve, get better, learn, and also help the members of our network because it’s reciprocal.


What my research says is we need broad networks that have all different kinds of people.


But we also need to make sure that our networks grow with us. That they’re adapting as we do rather than degenerating into the same usual suspects that we talk to bat around ideas.


So, work hard to cast a wider net, and you know what to do. Make use of projects. Start hosting and joining events. Create your own communities of interest. And invite people to your groups. You can reach out to senior people who left your company, peers in your ecosystem, people you lost track of, and say, ‘Hey, here’s what I’m working on. Can you give me some input? I’m thinking of making this career change, what do you think? Have you seen it?’


The research shows that what you get back will astound you.”


Be more playful with your identity.


“One of the things that I have learned in researching people, as they’re stepping up into these unfamiliar situations and roles, it’s easy to get caught in what I call the authenticity paradox.


In the authenticity paradox, this is what you are experiencing when you perceive a choice between being yourself and doing what it takes to succeed. But being yourself is what got you here. It’s tied to the skills and styles that got you here. And you’re a little bit worried about getting there. Sometimes as women, we worry more about that. Will I fit in? Will I be able to be myself here? There are no role models.


And the result is that it produces conservative, cautious behavior. That’s not authentic, it impedes learning, but the problem is if we call it being authentic, then we don’t go and do that uncomfortable stuff that makes you feel like an idiot. It gets in the way of the only way we’d learn, which is by doing stuff that is entirely unfamiliar.


You’ve got to experiment outside your comfort zone. You have to learn from diverse role models, even if you don’t like them, even if you don’t think that the way they do it may be the way for you. But the only way you’ll learn about yourself is by fast prototyping, by doing, by iterating, by editing, as you go.”


Herminia IbarraHerminia Ibarra spoke at the 2021 California Conference for Women. This article is based on her talk.