Emergent Coaching For Faster Results

How to Move from Imitation to Greatness

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

– Charles Caleb Colton

Say what you will about Mr. Colton’s oft-used quote, but he was definitely on to something.

When Bob Dylan was starting out on the Greenwich Village coffee house circuit in the early 60’s, some critics dismissed him as a pale imitation of Woody Guthrie. As Woody was one of his heroes, I’m sure he wasn’t too bothered.

I wasn’t around for those remarks but I clearly remember ones hurled at Quentin Tarantino’s in the early 90’s – “Martin Scorsese clone”, etc.reservoir dogs

Anyone who’s heard Dylan’s pre-electric music or watched an early Tarantino film recognizes some truth in these observations.

They also recognize that both Dylan and Tarantino went on to craft their own distinct styles while building on the work of their heros.

After all, isn’t imitation a form of flattery? Yes. And more.

I see it as a natural step to finding one’s own voice.

I’d argue that Dylan borrowed from the great Guthrie on his way to becoming even greater (I’ll let the cinephiles debate QT vs. Marty).

To become great in any field, i.e. a thought leader with original ideas that have an impact, you too will have to copy what you know and love.

I’d like to show you a simple formula to follow on the path to crafting your own unique voice.



Emotional Intelligence, Servant Leadership, Design Thinking – widely practiced ideas and concepts of recent years.

They’re used and valued because they’re good.

However, they’ve already been invented.

Not to worry. Here’s the formula in a nutshell:

Take what you like from these ideas and adapt them to your needs.

Better yet, combine them with something else you like and create something new altogether.

Use what works and makes sense to you, discard what doesn’t.

After all, no one knows what you need better than you.

If you develop others, no one is in a better position to try something new with them than you.

Here are 3 steps + examples to help you move from “Imitation to Greatness”:

strenghtsfinder1. Use – Take what you know and like and use it. If unsure, test it yourself.

For example, if you’d like to help someone develop hidden talents, first take the StrengthsFinder online questionnaire yourself (great value at $15). If you get value from the experience, chances are they will too.

2. Adapt – Take what works and adapt it to your own needs, or the needs of the people you wish to develop.

For example, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) describes 4 areas of personality. Take the most 1-2 relevant areas for your team and work with it. No need to add complexity if not needed.

3. Create – Take the pieces of what you like and create something new, i.e. “connect the dots”.

For example, if you’d like to improve the collaboration in your team or group, checkout the “4 Strong Skills of a Collaborative Leader”. Combine a few with your strengths and give this leadership style a name.

The ideas and concepts here are ones that I like. By all means, use yours.



Show me a great thinker and I’ll show you imitation in action.

Wasn’t Carl Jung inspired by Sigmund Freud. Plato by Socrates?

Even Albert Einstein added to ideas of others on his way to his great Theory of Relativity (still making headlines after 100 years!).

You are no different. So take the ideas and concepts you like and use them.

If unsure, test them out. If imperfect, adapt them.

If something different is needed, build on what you like and create something new.

Just remember the wise words of George E. P. Box: “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Most importantly, keep testing, adapting and creating – some day your ideas will help someone on their unique path!


How do you come up with high-impact ideas? What helps you “connect the dots”? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

  • I think your article Tim touches on a few different messages – at least that is what I took out of it:
    1) Think about “imitation” as such in your professional life. A thoughtful assessment of things I incorporated from others and honest account to yourself on how openly you are ready to be influenced by other good ideas is a very wise approach. We could potentially gain interesting perspectives about our selves learning about our very individual “imitation” algorithm.
    2) Every “Imitation” is probably an “Adaption”, because even if we try to copy we add our personal twist to things. As human are permanently imitating and adapting in life (starting as babys) – it shouldn’t surprise us too much that it also happens in professional life.

    Though I like Strengthsfinder and especially MBTI a lot – I am not sure I would necessarily think about them when I think about imitation as such. Both are wonderful tools for self-exploration and (team) reflection broaden immensely the understanding of why things happen the way they do,.. but I haven’t yet thought about the link to “imitation and adaption”.

    • Marco – thx for your comments. I agree that we all put our own “twist” on things automatically. The SF and MBTI are simply examples of tools I’ve found useful, but only examples – I encourage readers to apply their own tools or ideas to the the formula. BTW, what supports you in your process to original ideas?

      • I really do like the MBTI and the series they have published with it like MBTI and Coaching or MBTI and Teams,… this is a wealth of information. The 16PF isn’t too bad either, but a bit too deep for the beginner of psychometrics. Recently I have to admit that following the various channels of LinkedIn Pulse, Medium.com and HBR have given me a universe of things to think about and explore.

  • Great article, Tim.
    I agree that there’s nothing wrong with imitation as long as it’s used as a base to build upon and towards something grater.

  • Tim, Love the quote about all models are essentially wrong. Of course, if there was one model which captures every nuance of human behaviour, we’d all be using it.

    For me, the one that underpins all the other models I use and the one which consistently adds the most value is Gestalt’s Contact Cycle, i.e. sensation – awareness – mobilisation of energy – excitement – action – contact – withdrawal.

    Time and again, I find that by applying this model, not only can I locate
    where the group/person is getting stuck but also it gives us a roadmap to
    remove the blockages and moving the company forwards.

    • Hi Steven,

      What a great model! What I love is that it’s a holistic circle and if you try and rush through it too fast, you’ll get stuck…and need to go back to the stage you tried to skip or rush through.

      BTW, which stage do you find gives you and/or others the most challenges?