Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Before You Can Be A Real Leader, You Might Have to Fake It

Two articles caught my attention. In the first, the author, Kevin Hassett, argues that smarty-pants know-it-all Ivy League MBAs are responsible for all the economic trouble we're in today. (I suppose he could be right, but in my experience, Ivy League MBAs are brilliant and creative. Then again, I only know one, and we've been friends since we were roommates in college.) Hassett uses the phrase “best and brightest,” presumably alluding to the term used by David Halberstam to describe the posse of geniuses he blamed for leading the country into the debacle of Vietnam.

I'm not sure I agree with the general thrust of the piece, but one line caught my eye. In describing how these high-powered businesspeople came to believe they were masters of the universe, the author refers to Ohio University research involving 153 MBA students. According to Hassett, the psychologists running the study “observed that the students who had the strongest narcissistic traits were most likely to emerge as leaders.

An article in Time runs along a similar vein. The author, Jeffrey Kluger, examines a couple of other studies recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. And guess what? The UC Berkeley researchers involved in that effort discovered that “dominant individuals behaved in ways that made them appear competent [...] above and beyond their actual competence.”

I posted the Time article on the door to my office. I hope my employees take two messages from the piece when they stop to read it. First, that I'm engaging in a bit of self-deprecating humor – which I am. Second, that Kluger's advice to “[s]peak up, speak well and offer lots of ideas, and before long, people will begin doing what you say” may be worth examining.

Taken together, the articles suggest that you need to fake it before you can make it. Harvard MBAs may or may not have ruined the world, but before they were in any position to do so, they had to believe in themselves (perhaps a tad too much, but that's a discussion for another time). Bosses may be smart, or they may not be, but they only got to be bosses by being willing to put their ideas out there, and by having the confidence to assume that others will follow.

Leadership is like anything else. You're not born doing it: it takes practice, and you'll make mistakes, and if you have the slightest amount of self-awareness, you're going to ask yourself frequently whether you really belong in the position you've reached. So relax. You might have to fake it for a while. But so did your boss when she was in your job (and then she did it again when she moved up into the corner suite she occupies today). And so did that other manager down the hall whose intellect and leadership skills you admire (and maybe he still is).

You can't do the right thing for the people you are leading if you're not leading. Take a deep breath, and then, as another brilliant MBA I know likes to say, act as if you really have the confidence that you think somebody in your job should have. Before you know it, you will.

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