Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Are You An Original Leader Or A Copycat Leader?

Last week, much of the business and technology world was abuzz over a US court’s landmark decision against Samsung that it had violated some of Apple’s software and design copyrights. While the decision is certainly far from final – with Samsung already announcing that they will appeal the decision – several observers are astutely pointing out the potential fallout Apple’s victory will have on the innovation process for any organization.

Specifically, how real innovation occurs not through capturing lightning in a bottle, but through copying existing works in order to understand how disparate elements can be reassembled to create a new work or product. A good example of this can be seen in looking at the story of how Picasso became a world-renowned painter.

Initially, Picasso followed the lead of his teachers in learning how to copy the styles of various Renaissance painters. Through this process, Picasso discovered what his limitations were and began to incorporate some of the avant-garde styles being used by painters in Barcelona in order to address these gaps. By combining his strengths and experiences painting in these two distinct art styles, Picasso went on to create the unique signature and look for which he’s now famous for.

While the act of copying others is certainly a critical step in the creation of new works, products, and services, there is one area where copying others does have a deleterious effect on the ability of organizations to compete and thrive in today’s global economy. And that is when leaders choose to copy what so-called successful leaders do.

Consider, for example, when the biography of Steve Jobs was released last year. Instead of treating it as a historical reference of who Steve Jobs really was – of what personal experiences and strengths ended up defining both who he was and why he chose to lead his organization the way he did – many treat it more like a recipe book on how to conjure up a similar effect within their organizations.

But does that mean we should stop reading about what other leaders did to achieve their success? Not at all. Indeed, as a student of history, I think there is plenty that we can learn from those who came before us or who underwent seemingly impossible challenges as understood from the lens of their time, culture, and personal experiences.

And therein lies the fundamental gap that we see in today’s leadership – one where we’ve replaced the action verb “learn” with “copy”. Essentially, we’ve shifted our focus from learning what the experiences of others might reveal about us, to merely copying or emulating what’s easiest for us to do in the hopes that we might accomplish what they did.

Sure, in the process of creation, copying is critical to the creative process, something the US court decision against Samsung – not to mention some of the recently proposed copyright laws – would have us believe otherwise.

However, in terms of leading your team and organization, copying others simply won’t cut it because it not only fails to take into consideration the needs and requirements of those you lead (e.g, will your team really benefit from working under an autocratic and at times abusive ruler like Steve Jobs?), but it also fails to tap into your strengths, passions, personal experiences and core values – elements which should inform how you approach serving those you lead.

Unlike a product or service where one can find success replicating the features and options found in amongst the top-tier product and service lines, leadership requires more than simply tracing the steps of those we regard as being the role models of leadership and success.

It requires that we bring some authenticity to the function by demonstrating how our core values inform our decisions and behaviours, instead of merely copying what we see or read others doing under the assumption that this must be what leadership looks like.

In their seminal work, “The Leadership Challenge”, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner point out:

If you can’t find your voice, you’ll end up with a vocabulary that belongs to someone else, mouthing words that were written by some speechwriter or mimicking the language of some other leader who’s nothing like you at all.

If the words you speak are not your words but someone else’s, you will not, in the long term, be able to be consistent in word and deed. You will not have the integrity to lead.”

In much the same way as we achieve success, we become the kind of leaders we are not from within a vacuum or through simply copying what works for others. Rather, it’s through a distillation of our own core values, experiences, and what we’ve learned along the way that allows us to find that balance between who we are and what those we serve require from us in order to be successful in their shared efforts.

That’s why, contrary to what we might believe, there are no born leaders. Instead, there are individuals who choose not to follow the tried-and-true path others have taken and instead, use the lessons they’ve learned and the experiences they’ve had to help them understand what kind of a leader those around them need them to be.

Of course, learning is only half of the process to successfully leading others. What those successful leaders that we all admire also do is teach those under their care how to be leaders in their own right as well.

As much as your leadership is perceived by your actions and the results achieved by your organization, it will also be judged by the legacy you create – of how you not only engaged, but empowered those you serve to tap into their own strengths and passions to become the kind of people who can help those around them to achieve the kind of success and fulfillment we all long for.

With the arrival of a new school year and with it a renewed focus on learning and growth, I encourage you not to simply copy what your competition is doing – at least in the field of leadership. But to instead discover what you can learn from them, what their histories can inform you about your own experiences, and ultimately how you can be not just a leader like them, but the kind of leader you were meant to be.

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9 Comments
  1. On August 28th, 2012 at 3:36 PM Jim Matorin said:

    Yes, Tanveer you know using Picasso as an example piqued my interest, thus I went on to read, digest and enjoy your blog. We have to look at all leaders in all walks of life, not just business, to pick up those kernels of leadership traits that make sense as we hone our own skills as well.

    One more thought. This morning I was listening to the BBC and a program about food security. We are relying too heavily on the UN and old leadership doing it the same old way. Forget about copy cats here, we need some fresh thinking some new creative leadership of we are…

  2. On August 29th, 2012 at 12:29 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Jim,

    In writing this piece, I intentionally wanted to use a non-business example to demonstrate this point because there is that tendency in most fields to focus solely on their discipline to understand or gain new insights.

    Inevitably, what this does is serves to confirm what we already know or at worse, reinforce our current thinking/patterns which prevents us from evaluating new approaches or ways of thinking.

    Of course, this is becoming the new challenge for today as we attempt to push more and more into our days in the hopes that increasing our productivity will improve the current state of affairs.

    Consequently, it does become easier simply to copy what the "successful" people do in the hopes that we can duplicate their successes.

  3. On August 28th, 2012 at 10:08 PM Mike Henry Sr. said:

    Tanveer, thanks for a great post.

    Part of the reason I use the term character-based leadership is because our leadership should be based in who we are. In fact, our best leadership will come directly from the best of who we are.

    Copying someone else or learning "tactics" or even trying to copy or develop character "traits" to get someone else to do what I want them to do is fake. It won't work. It is theft.

    Only when I'm genuine, can I begin to lead. Even then, if my genuine self isn't all that great, I won't be much of a leader either.

    Thanks for a great post and reminder.

  4. On August 29th, 2012 at 12:38 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Mike; I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    You're right that copying tactics that work for others won't work, especially over the long run, because the reason we do it is to replicate their successes.

    However, when we use those same tactics and hit a roadblock, those tactics will no longer serve to inform us of what to do. Rather, it will be our own invidual experiences and knowledge we retain because it resonates with our core values which will serve us best.

    Unfortunately, with our continued focus on short-term, get what's on my plate today done, it becomes easier to simply copy others than take the time to reflect on what it means for us to be a leader and how what we uniquely bring to the table can best serve those under our care.

    Thanks again, Mike for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  5. On August 29th, 2012 at 12:27 AM Gwyn Teatro said:

    Hi Tanveer,

    You have said something here that needs to be said more often. In particular I loved how you have made the distinction between copying and learning. There is a huge difference between them.

    To me, copying is the easy, lazy person’s way out, at least initially. Learning asks us to invest something of ourselves into the mix and that is much harder, much more rewarding and eminently more honest. Thank you for putting it in print for all to see.

  6. On August 29th, 2012 at 1:20 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Gwyn; I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    Your point about how learning requires us to invest in ourselves reminds me of a recent finding from the National Endowment for the Arts that reading literature (as opposed to Facebook updates and the like) is on the decline.

    What types of literature we're reading less is inconsequential as the point is clear that we're investing less in learning more about different disciplines and areas, preferring the lazy way as you call it of simply copying what appears to work for others.

    Granted, as I pointed out, in terms of product and service development, copying does play a critical role. It's quite ironic, though, how organizational leaders are becoming more and more defensive of preventing their competition from copying their designs/products while being perfectly satisfied copying the leadership styles of others.

    Thanks again, Gwyn, for sharing your thoughts on this.

  7. On August 29th, 2012 at 2:49 AM @LrngLdshp said:

    Great piece. Please see my blog post that takes your line of thinking further into doing specifics .

  8. On September 4th, 2012 at 4:13 PM kentjulian said:

    What we believe in is evidenced by how we live, not just by what we say.

    In other words, authentic leadership is about living by core mission and values, not just talking about principles that sound good.

    Good stuff here, Tanveer!

  9. On September 4th, 2012 at 4:34 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Kent; glad you enjoyed this piece. Appreciate your sharing your thoughts on this.

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