This is the first essay in a four-part miniseries on leadership development.

If you want to lead well, follow the Three I’s of Leadership:

If you want to lead yourself, imitate.

If you want to lead others, iterate.

If you want to lead the world, innovate.

We know that imitation is the fundamental mechanism of human behavior. We’ve studied and applied mimetic theory to organizational leadership and building a group of loyal followers. But how does it actually apply to the leader? Ironically, the most reliable predictor of a good leader is in the Three I’s.

Today I was asked the question, “who has influenced you the most?” Put on the spot, I didn’t have an immediate answer. But, because it was a Zoom meeting, I was able to glance at my bookshelf where I came up with one of my biggest inspirations, Kobe Bryant. I didn’t have many role models in my life as a kid, so I always gravitated to sports on television. My fandom soon became a laboratory for studying the minds, the thoughts, the actions, and the influence of my favorite athletes and coaches. Among them was Kobe, and although I never rooted for him as a player, I admired and studied his presence, his command, his attention to detail, and his ruthless work ethic and have incorporate certain parts into my own style. Likewise, I’ve studied and emulated the styles of Steve Kerr, Bruce Arians, Sean McVay, Tom Brady, Bill Walsh, John Wooden, and countless others in the sports world. To this day, whenever I find a leader I admire, I study them, imitate them, and incorporate certain aspects of their leadership into my own approach. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel of leadership.

In fact, Kobe said it himself: “There isn’t a move that’s a new move.” He, too, studied his role models, influences, and heroes. He, too, copied their moves. And when he realized he couldn’t perfectly pull them off, he adjusted them to make them his own. In every aspect of his game, his leadership, and his life, Kobe was emulating someone else. His greatness is a result of the Three I’s.

A perfect example of the Three I’s is Kobe’s coach for the majority of his career, Phil Jackson. Regarded as one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, he was the mentor and developer of four of the greatest players in the history of the league: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal, and of course, Kobe Bryant. He was a connoisseur of the famous triangle offense that confounded defenses all across the NBA for decades. As a coach, he won 11 NBA championships in 20 years—more rings than he has fingers. But his greatness as a coach and as a leader didn’t come naturally. He adhered to the Three I’s.

In other professions, there are examples of great leaders who have imitated, iterated, and innovated their way to influence and success. In art, in comedy, in writing, and in government itself, the common thread across every great leader and every great organization is that they realized they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. They didn’t put the pressure on themselves to be totally original. They took ideas from others, and even went as far as to actively copy their mannerisms. They iterated and incorporated these aspects into their own style and went on to innovate and revolutionize the worlds for which they are known.

In the next three short essays, we’ll explore a simple framework for what it takes to become a great leader through the lenses of imitation, iteration, and innovation. We’ll dive deep into the stories of coaches, creators, and statesmen, and examine exactly how they used the Three I’s to become great leaders.

Picasso once said, “art is theft.”

I say, great leadership is no different.

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