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Imitation is the Lowest Form of Strategy

July 9, 2019

We live in a world of copycats.

I’m privileged to be in a position where I regularly talk to smart young leaders. These men and women are ambitious. They want to achieve great things. They dream of creating products and services that add value. Unfortunately, many of them fall into a terrible trap. Looking for the easiest path, they search for a fail-proof formula they can replicate and repurpose. They see others who have succeeded and begin to ask who they should be instead of what they could do.

Too often young people (older people too) make a major mistake—they try to become someone else instead of something unique that the world desperately needs.

Mark McNeilly writes in his book Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: “Although competitive imitation may be the highest form of flattery, it is the lowest form of strategy.”

Certainly, there are some things we should imitate and replicate that other people are doing successfully. Consider these three areas:

  1. Policies and Procedures. If there are businesses, nonprofits, or churches that run smoothly because they have certain policies and procedures in place, these are things you should consider replicating to improve your own organization. The same is true in other areas of our lives. If we observe a healthy and happy home, it’s worth asking what standards make that household so peaceful. If something works well for one family, it may be worth replicating and adapting to fit your own family’s needs.
  2. Process. Without question, there are some tried and true methods for doing work that should be imitated. If somebody else has figured out how to code a website well, draw up a formula on an excel spreadsheet, or create a tool to make work more efficient and effective, by all means, use it!
  3. Products. This one is a little tougher to explain, but let’s talk through a couple of examples. If somebody figured out how to make a really good burrito, but you figure how to make a better burrito—sell it. At one point, someone figured out how to make the first car, but others have found ways to make a car that’s safer, or has better gas mileage, or that’s faster and more fun to drive. Taking an idea and making it better isn’t a bad thing—it’s smart!

But imitation shifts from being a smart strategy to a fatally flawed approach when you try to imitate another person. There is an epidemic of people that read books about Steve Jobs’ leadership style and try to replicate it. Yes, he was incredibly successful, but it’s well known that he could be abrasive, arrogant, and even mean-spirited. Now, there are leaders in the world that are treating their team members badly because they want to be somebody they are not. Just because it worked for him, doesn’t mean it will work for you. 

The same is true of our values. I often sit across from new entrepreneurs who will ask me about the values that drive me. It blows my mind when I see those same values show up on their website the following week. Although it’s flattering in the moment, it’s ultimately concerning. If you’re looking to someone else to figure out your values, you don’t know who you are, and you’re in trouble.

Not all imitation is bad, but trying to be someone else is unacceptable. In fact, it’s robbery. You’re robbing the world of your unique, God-given gifts. Your uniqueness is precisely what provides you with the best opportunity.

Judy Garland once said, “Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else.” 

If you’re a pastor, stop trying to watch sermons online to copy a particular speaking style.

If you’re a leader, stop studying Steve Jobs’ management approach and just be yourself.

If you’re an artist, stop trying to create what’s already selling and make something unique.

If you’re a writer, stop trying to be your favorite author and write from the heart.

When it comes to policies, procedures, processes, and products, feel free to rip off, replicate, and imitate. But when it comes to the unique pieces of your individual self, don’t settle for a cheap copy of somebody else.

Remember this principle that’s true for both fine art and for success in life—people never pay as much for a copy as they do for the original.

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