All great leaders imitate their heroes.
They realize that in order to achieve greatness, pure talent or brute force can only take them so far. To be great, they must stand on the shoulders of giants.
Nobody is born a leader. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are or what we will become. We learn everything, from language to mannerisms, through imitation. As kids, we start by imitating our heroes. What we see around the house, what we see on television, and what we see at school, we become. Say it with me again, we are mimetic creatures. We are products of our environment. In school, we are taught correctly not to plagiarize, but within that, along with our curiosity, we soon lose our desire to imitate. Imitation is the way we find our authentic selves, and when that is taken away from us, we resort to fitting in with the crowd or trying too hard to be “original.” Both are unnatural to who we are. And both are flat-out wrong.
The best way to find yourself is in the imitation of others. As Bruce Lee said, “absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.” When we become adults, society tells us we must figure out who we are, while at the same time frowning upon those who are perceived as “inauthentic.” This approach scares most people into waiting until they know exactly who they are in order to ever get started on the road to their true purpose. It is especially true in leadership. This fear is what contributes to the bystander effect — “I’ll let others take the lead,” and it’s what keeps us paralyzed in the imposter syndrome—“I’m not good enough”—all new leaders feel.
For a long time, Kobe Bryant was criticized widely for having an “inauthentic” game. He came into the NBA as an 18-year-old unproven phenom. He had no time to be a bystander—all eyes were on him. He had no time to be an imposter—people expected him to be great. When he removed these common roadblocks, he could simply focus on his craft, and when he did, he realized why his detractors never achieved greatness. Raw talent wasn’t enough. He didn’t have the leverage to lead by experience, so he had to lead by example—through his work ethic and performance. He studied film of other great players like Magic Johnson and Julius Erving, and copied their moves. He studied Michael Jordan so deeply that many began to call them mirror images of each other. Kobe even went as far to admit it himself: “I have stolen all of these moves from all these great players. I just try to do them proud, the guys who came before, because I learned so much from them. It’s all in the name of the game. It’s a lot bigger than me.” He realized he didn’t have the same body-type as many of his other heroes. Anything he imitated, he would watch for friction—those moments where imitation leads to awkwardness or resistance—and adjust to make each move work for him. By mirroring others intensely, every single day, Kobe became the greatest basketball player of a generation. He didn’t do it alone. He stood on the shoulders of giants, and copied them.
In every example of greatness, there are examples of imitation. Wikipedia often lists “influences” on the subject’s page, and by now, you know that “influences” is just a nice word for “imitated.” The comedian Dave Chappelle imitated Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor before he found his true authenticity. The writer Hunter S. Thompson rewrote, by hand, every word of The Great Gatsby to get a feel for writing a novel. Barack Obama honed his speaking abilities by studying and analyzing Martin Luther King, Jr. Artists imitate the paintings, the techniques, the mindsets, and the workspaces of other artists. Tim Ferriss has built a gigantic podcast on people’s need to imitate high performers. Imitation is something that everyone does, but very few admit to.
The more we imitate others, the more likely we will find ourselves. But keep in mind, imitation is a springboard, not the destination. In writing, photography, and paper currency, imitation will get you in trouble. But to hone your craft and become an authority figure in your field, you must use imitation shamelessly to find your style and your voice. Like Kobe Bryant, imitate intensely, then watch for moments of friction, and that is where your authenticity will shine through.
Don’t wait until you know exactly who you are to get started.
You’ll never arrive at your destination if you never leave the station.
Imitate your heroes.
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