3 Bad Habits of Fake Leaders — and How to Avoid Them January 26 2012

There was an interesting movie that came out last year called “The Adjustment Bureau” starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. In it, Damon plays a rising young congressman named David Norris. He’s headed for a big victory in a campaign for the U.S. Senate until a picture comes out of him mooning his fraternity brothers at a college reunion. He loses big and starts giving his supporters the big, inspirational, we’ll-be-back concession speech. He says things like, “Where I grew up, it wasn’t that you got knocked down, it was about what you did when you got back up.”

The crowd initially cheers loudly, but then settles down when Norris tells them what he just said was total BS. They didn’t say that in his neighborhood. His pollsters told him it would play well. Same thing with the striped tie he was wearing and even the amount of scuffing he had on his dress shoes. He pulled back the curtain on how the game was played. It was about learning how to fake being real.

As we enter the height of the political season in the U.S., that speech comes to mind. All of the candidate debates and speeches seem to offer a symposium in how to fake being real. Here are three common habits I’ve noticed so far:

  • Put your game face mask on. When you enter the debate arena or step up to make that big speech, never let them see you sweat. Get that alpha dog body language going and smile so they see all your teeth. Above all else, don’t show any vulnerability.
  • Stick to the poll research. Touch all the bases that appeal to the base. Cover so many things that nothing means anything.
  • Follow the formula. There’s an accepted and expected formula for giving the big speech, so stick to it. At this point, you’ve done it so many times you could do it in your sleep. Of course, there’s a pretty good chance that your audience is asleep with their eyes open. If you’re lucky.

Needless to say, I’m not seriously advocating those techniques. I do, however, see a lot of them showing up in leadership settings outside of politics. Here are three ways to avoid showing up as a leader who’s only pretending to be real:

  • Say how you really feel. Try honesty. It can be so rare that it will set you apart. I’m not arguing for unchecked volcanic eruptions or depth-of-depression soliloquies, but you should share your take on the truth.
  • Draw on your life experience. Stay away from fake or clichéd stories and tell some of your own stories. Tell real stories about real people you know who have overcome challenges, done great work or inspire you in some way. Make a connection that people can relate to.
  • Explain the behaviors behind the clichés. There are lot of clichés that show up in organizational mission statements and values lists. They’re so bland and familiar that they often don’t mean anything and feel fake. Don’t just stop with ”Excellence” or “Commitment.” Share what those words mean to you in terms of real life behavior and outcomes.

What’s your take on leaders who fake being real? How do you see them doing it? Better yet, what tells you a leader is really real?

15 Responses to “3 Bad Habits of Fake Leaders — and How to Avoid Them”

  1. vince says:

    Before you pass judgement be certain that the leader is fake. What draws you to that conclusion? If your conclusion is correct based on reasonable information, then that of course damages a person's credability.
    What tells me if a person is real. Is a pattern of behavior over a period of time. Remember don't judge a book by its cover.

  2. I think #1 is vitally important for genuine leaders. Great article!

  3. Jim Rutherford says:

    leadership is not a title or position. its a behavior that earns the title or the position. It would not be so easy to fake leadership if people were not so hungry for it. I believe teaching core value leadership behavior as general academics early on should be standard curriculum in our early educational systems and reinforced throughout life. Everyone's a leader to someone. We need to build that daily.

    • scott eblin says:

      Hi Jim –

      Thanks for commenting. If you had a list of core values leadership behaviors that would be part of the general curriculum, which ones would be on the list?

      Cheers –


  4. Moira says:

    Honesty is so important – yet so rare – in leaders. Telling your own story is authentic, but so many leaders simply spew out some book learning (maybe because they don’t have any of their own stories to tell). And my advice to those who feel compelled to lie – get good at it, and keep track of all those untruths. The only thing worse than a liar is a bad liar! Better yet, just dn’t lie at all!

  5. Stephen Houston says:

    model leadership not motto it. above will only occur if the leader digs deep and is honest with themselves first.

    • scott eblin says:

      My mom taught me many, many years ago that I was a terrible lier (meaning I was really inept at telling lies. She always caught me in them.). All these years later, I'm still bad at it. Leaves me with no alternative to telling the truth. Just lucky I guess!

      Thanks Moira.

    • scott eblin says:

      Model, not motto. Nice one Stephen.

  6. PM Hut says:

    Well the fact of the matter is that Damon played his supporters, he played them when he was wearing the mask and he played them afterwards. He really wanted to win, and he was willing to lie all the way to the polls.

    As for leaders, it is easy to spot a fake leader because his team members (if he’s a project manager) are in constant contact with him (so they can understand who he really is behind the mask, if he’s wearing one).

    Servant leadership is probably the best leadership style out there.

    • scott eblin says:

      Servant leadership certainly seems like the best long term approach. Have seen it applied successfully in many different fields.

  7. Leadershipwatch - Aad Boot says:

    Great article, Scott. Relevant for all leaders, political and business leaders.

  8. Illysa says:

    We want to be led by authentic leaders, but we're all sucked in by the game face — after all, look how we pounce when one of the candidates demonstrates any vulnerability and look how well the candidates did (after the recent Republican debates) when they went on the attack. One slip of the tongue and a candidate finds the public has turned its back.

    Any ideas on how followers can better choose their leaders?

  9. Rebecca says:

    Actually just about anyone who has any life experience at all is at some point a leader. If you want to be a "popular" leader, then you have to play the game of getting elected or chosen or be so very good at what you do that no one can compete with you. I just watched the movie "Moneyball" and the character Billy Beane shows good leadership-even when not popular. He had passion, experience and took risks. He surrounded himself with experts and when ideas were outdated and he couldn't get anyone to understand his vision-he had to let them go or in the case of the coach he changed the roster. That's a good leader.

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