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We Are What We Pretend to Be

Geoff Schaadt

We are what we pretend to be.
So we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

     – Kurt Vonnegut

This has long been one of my favourite quotes. This isn’t even the first time that I’ve used it here.

We all have our personal favourites because they capture a complex idea that resonates deeply in just a few well-chosen words. Perfect for the twitter generation.

Who do you want to be?

And why does this one resonate with me?

I get a lot of joy from teaching and coaching. I’ve coached kids as young as six and executives as old as – well, older than me. 

I’ve been a teacher at the high school level, university, and in professional development settings.

And in all of the time that I’ve spent guiding others, I have yet to see anyone who can just pick up any complex skill – physical or mental – and execute perfectly without appropriate practice and effective feedback.

You can read, watch videos, attend lectures and symposia, interview experts, job shadow, whatever helps you understand the fundamentals of the situation. But until you DO IT yourself, you can never really begin the process of course corrections that will lead to mastery.

Fake It

Most of us have heard the phrase, “Fake it ’til you make it.”

It sounds ridiculous to a lot of people, but guess what? This is really what it boils down to. Baseline knowledge is great. Gathering knowledge is appropriate. But we can easily get stuck in this phase for far too long. Until you put it in play, until you put yourself in a position to make mistakes, to look stupid, to learn from your silly newbie errors, you will never really grow. And you certainly won’t achieve any level of mastery.

So you jump in and “fake it ’til you make it.” Or, in the far more eloquent prose of Mr. Vonnegut, “We are what we pretend to be.”

You can’t play hockey if you can’t skate.

Since you are here, there is a pretty good chance that you want to be an effective manager and a great leader.

You read the blogs, follow leadership gurus on twitter, and have a stack of leadership books on the night table. And, if you were like me, you were silly enough to think that completing an MBA would make you a better manager too.

These things are great for creating a strong foundation. When coaching sports we would say that you are working on your fundamentals. After all, you can’t play hockey if you can’t skate.

But you can’t become a great skater if you aren’t willing to fall down. A lot.

Act Like a Leader

Herminia Ibarra is a professor of leadership and learning at INSEAD, and author of the highly regard new book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader.

The central thesis of this book is essentially the same as I have argued. We don’t really learn how to be an effective leader – how to ‘think’ like a leader – until we have gone out and done it.

If you want to be a leader - go be a leader. Pretend to be what you want to become.

You Can’t Coach You

As with any difficult skill – and, honestly, the two most difficult skills that I have ever attempted are a) being a leader and b) being a parent – leadership can be self-taught through trial-and-error.

A lot of people teach themselves to skate, too. But a vanishingly small number of these become great skaters.

Typically, you aren’t very good at self-evaluation. You need someone with a depth of knowledge and expertise in the skill you seek. A person who can give you the guidance that you need to achieve at the level you hope to reach.

Four Leadership Behaviours

So what skills do you need to master to become a great leader?

Libraries have been filled attempting to answer this question. More will be. Turn to someone who you respect and trust to help guide you on this difficult journey. Someone who isn’t afraid to bruise your ego, but won’t crush it either.

In the meantime, McKinsey recently published their findings from a survey of CEOs regarding their opinion of the most important leadership behaviours. The top four results represented 89% of the variance between strong and weak organizations in terms of leadership effectiveness.

I think these would also form an excellent guidepost as you think about the behaviours you need to ‘fake’:

  1. Be supportive
  2. Operate with strong results orientation
  3. Seek different perspectives
  4. Solve problems effectively

Taken alone, each of these is quite a big topic.

For now, just think about how you will pretend to be a leader that can embrace these four behaviours.

Be Careful

If your image of a great leader includes the lone-wolf visionary, the decisive general, the smartest-guy-in-the-room, the toughest dog in the fight, well…

Be careful about what you pretend to be.



Vonnegut Stencil courtesy of R 

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About this Article

Posted by Geoff Schaadt
Posted on April 27, 2015

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Categories: change management, culture, engagement, hr & talent management, leadership, lessons learned, management, teams