What it Means to Be an Experimental Leader


Guest post by Melanie Parish, MCC


Being a leader is challenging work. When I first started working with clients, one of the biggest surprises for me was that almost every leader (with only rare exceptions) suffers from some kind of imposter syndrome. It is ubiquitous. The more success the leader is having, the more imposter syndrome they seem to feel. I believe this happens because they are stretching into new territory–taking up a little more space than they took up before–and it leaves them feeling exposed. Imposter syndrome isn’t a pleasant feeling. When it happens, we want to try and make it go away. Even though it is ubiquitous, imposter syndrome is still scary and uncomfortable.

When someone is experiencing imposter syndrome is when they try to figure out how to act as a leader. We look around to other leaders we know to emulate. We try to find others who appear successful and we start to attempt to act like them with very little thought as to whether their behaviors make sense. Often, we perceive people to be good leaders if they tell everyone what to do or they seem like they have all the answers. Sometimes we emulate leaders who seem like they are all-knowing–we are drawn to them because they make us feel safe. This can cause some very real problems and doesn’t put people on very solid foundations for their leadership. Number one, they don’t know if the behaviors they are emulating were working for the other leader. Number two, those behaviors may or may not fit their own leadership style. The people around us may think they are arrogant or mean. They may just be ineffective. 

Being an experimental leader is not a panacea but can offer another path for leadership. 

What do you do to become an experimental leader?

  • Give up the idea that anyone knows the “right” way to do things. Unless you work in a field that work repeats and that has a specific set of standards (accounting, plumbing, air-traffic control), there are many paths. 
  • Create an emotional landscape of neutrality. Respond with curiosity and stop sending yourself off emotional cliffs of outrage and anger. Figure out how to detrigger your negative responses. Work on an emotional neutrality inside yourself.
  • Every day organizations try new things. Start thinking of those new things as experiments. Start talking about experimenting.
  • Start collecting data on your experiments. Debrief what you tried. Figure out if it worked. Organizations often start new things without ever evaluating whether it works and continue it forever without evaluation.
  • Foster the open flow of ideas all around you. Ask curious questions. When people come with problems, ask, “What do you want to try next?” When things go poorly ask, “What did you learn? “ and “What will you try next? Talk openly.

Being an experimental leader will allow you to take people on a journey with you where they are active participants. It can be difficult to find the leadership space in organizations to call people forth, to hold standards, and to ask people to give of themselves in service of the company goals, but asking them to be an active participant in their own work will help create meaning and connection to the work itself.

What do you have to give up to be an experimental leader?

  • Give up on being all knowing. Stop giving all the answers in order to feel like you add value.
  • Give up on telling people what to do. Start asking them what they need to do next. Ask questions if they seem off track and help them see what you see.
  • Give up on being right. Allow gray areas. Allow things to unfold over time. Collect data. Let the data win.


The End State

Understanding the desired end state for an experimental leader and their organization might be useful. Picture an organization where there is a clear vision of the future and the organization knows their place in fulfilling that vision. Short term strategy is clear and leaders align operations with that strategy. Tactical front-line work is full of experiments to find best ways to move forward and improvements are happening continuously by every layer of the organization. From a communication perspective there is a free flow of ideas and feedback is given often with honesty and openness. 

Self doubt in humans is ubiquitous but having a clear path as a leader can help. Becoming an experimental leader can elevate the dialogue around leadership and give people a clear path to help them try new things and create space for innovation. The biggest problem with the “all knowing” boss is that it elevates one way of thinking over many ways of thinking. Being an experimental leader will help engage the ideas and thinking of all the people in the organization. Being an experimental leader will help create space for experimenting, iteration, and change. That is the heart of intentional creativity–AKA innovation.


Melanie Parish is a public speaker, author, and Master Coach. An expert in problem solving, constraints management, operations, and brand development, Melanie has consulted and coached organizations ranging from the Fortune 50 to IT start-ups. She is the author of The Experimental Leader: Be A New Kind of Boss to Cultivate an Organization of Innovators. For more information, please visit, www.melanieparish.com and connect with her on Twitter, @melanieparish.