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Are You Faking Your Own Leadership?

November 19, 2010

Last week while I was in San Diego, I met up with my blogging friend Matthew Polkinghorne at a funky little restaurant for breakfast.

Matthew is much younger than me, but is already vastly better connected, as indicated by the top leadership name brands he casually mentions in passing conversation.

“Brad,” he says, “You should come out with me next week to Marshall’s house for our morning walk.” As in Marshall Goldsmith, best-selling author and famous leadership coach to Fortune 500 CEOs.

And I’m like, “Oh, it’s ‘Marshall? And not just ‘Marsh?’ And are you serious?

I fear that we are careening dangerously out of my league.

Matthew is an ambitious fellow, with an intensely curious mind, which I hear is a sign of intelligence. As we were eating breakfast, enjoying a pleasant conversation, he suddenly hurled this question onto the table without any prior warning:

“Do you have to be fake to be an executive?”

 It kind of caught me off guard, the whole idea that maybe he thought I was a fake;  like on the job I pretend to be a hard-ass, or really smart, but in my real life I am a kind and dumb person.

“No, of course not!” I said, practically spitting up a mouthful of all natural steel-cut oatmeal topped with turbanado sugar, skim milk, and locally farmed raisins. “Why would I do that?” I swallowed hard, and then said, “Well, yes, maybe once, a long time ago, I probably used to be a little fake.”

It is true that many years ago, during the clawing-my-way-up-the-corporate-ladder phase, there were times when I may have been more guarded, more concerned about the impression I was making rather than being the authentic goofball that I was. I was just being careful, though. Not necessarily fake.

All right. Maybe I was faking it a little, but mostly because I didn’t think my employers would be so happy if they found out about the real me. The real dope-head, loser me, who mysteriously, accidentally, somehow got promoted to a management position. What were these people thinking? How did I ever get hired at this level? What would they do if they found out how incapable I really was? These were the self-sabatoging thoughts I fought against.

I thought I really was a fake, so therefore I was faking to cover up that I wasn’t a fake. It was complicated.

The Imposter Syndrome

 It is a well know fact that most new managers experience what is known as the Imposter Syndrome, where high achievers worry that they’ve fooled people into believing that they are more competent than they really are.  People typically cope with this by covering up their insecurity through avoiding tough questions, or pretending that they know more than they do. Either way, it takes the focus off of bringing your skills and talents to get the job done, and more on what impression you are making.

For the most part, I nixed that pesky imposter syndrome years ago. I think it is just a matter of time and experience, which get you to the point of not worrying so much what people think any more. I am well aware of my strengths and weaknesses, and accept the whole package when doing my job. I assume that everyone else that I work with knows my strengths and weaknesses, too. I’m not fooling anyone, so why pretend? If my boss, or the Board of Directors, didn’t like my management performance, they would have gotten rid of me a long time ago.

I don’t know if I sufficiently answered this, or any of Matthew’s other questions that morning.  I certainly don’t have all the answers, like Marsh does. I can’t pretend to be something I’m not. I’m just a guy getting together with a blogging friend for breakfast.  

I think Matthew is fine with that.  

But what about you? Have you ever faked your own leadership?

17 Comments leave one →
  1. November 19, 2010 10:30 am

    I’m fighting that right now. Just recently I have had upper management take note of me, and part of that terrifies me. Like you said, there is that feeling that I’ve somehow made them believe I have more skills, and strengths then I really do. Good to hear it is something we can outgrow!

  2. November 19, 2010 10:58 am

    As a manager now for 30 years, I can tell that faking leadership is a given. There are days when you just want to blend in. You just want to punch the clock, do your work and go home. You dont care about projections or statistics, sales or goals, personnel problems or hiring.

    But I can’t. So i fake it.

    And you know what, it works. Because after a few days, I rise up to my role and my function and I’m fine.

    My faith is like that too. It’s called discipline. i dont always want to pray and read and worship. But I do it sometimes, just to keep the momemtum going. It carries me through.

    • November 22, 2010 6:39 am

      David, I remember times where I felt so overwhelmed or that I couldn’t do the job, I would do the same thing – I’d go into work and say to myself, “just go through the motions today, it’s okay.” And soon enough, I’d find myself back in the game, engaged in my work. So much of this is managing your own head.

  3. November 19, 2010 1:13 pm

    This isn’t simple (or easy). After all we all wear masks most of the time to some degree. We all tend to fear that if others knew what we’re REALLY like (if our thoughts were broadcast on our forehead for example) then they’d never accept us. This spills into the workplace – we lack confidence in what we can do, and think we should be aspiring to things we can’t do. The thing is, most of us know in our heads that God does indeed see all our thoughts, know all our limitations, laugh at all our conceits, and yet He accepts us so totally and utterly and unconditionally that He was prepared to die for us! How come we don’t live like we believe it? I know that too often I don’t, and so yes at work and elsewhere I have my fake times.

    One other thing though is that there seems to be a necessity to “sell” ourselves to our management and our colleagues. I’m uncomfortable doing this and my career has probably suffered as a result. It’s often been a performance counseling point for me. The thing is that this may be a form of false humility. It is not reasonable to expect others to determine all our abilities, potential, strengths, etc. There are times we need to help them. This is of course the opposite of being fake, provided that we are honest with ourselves and carry that honesty into communication with others.

    As always an interesting and provocative post, Bradley. Thanks!

    • November 22, 2010 6:44 am

      Sometimes I wonder: What would it be like at work if we truly acted like we knew we were unconditionally loved and accepted by God? I think it would change a lot of this behavior that gets driven by insecurity and anxiety, and we could perform better, manage better, and love better. (that’s right, I said to “love” at work).

      Thanks for your insights, Graham!

  4. November 19, 2010 7:00 pm

    I think those younger folks–like your friend Matthew (and like you once upon a time were, Bradley :)) who are new to the whole career thing maybe have to be more open to being flexible as they learn what is expected and what is not cool. More seasoned professionals (such as you and me:)) are free to be more authentic because we’ve earned that. Don’t you think? A certain amount of “playing the game” is part of the initiation into any career. That said, I think being “fake” can be defined a lot of ways. One can be ambitious and still not compromise their core values. Anyway…what am I talking about? I don’t know anything about the business world dynamics.

    But I think it’s neat that you’re reading Keating’s book. It’s on my list.

    • November 21, 2010 10:21 pm

      I agree. I’m less likely to fake it as compared to 10 years ago. But I still find myself doing it sometimes.

      For the most part, I’ve found business leaders to appreciate the words “I don’t know” instead of a fake response. I’m getting better at saying “I don’t know.”

  5. November 19, 2010 8:11 pm

    that is a very cute orange.
    i he from california?

    you’re just meeting blog friends all over the place, man!

  6. November 20, 2010 12:04 am


    Thank you for writing such a wonderful story that includes me and our wonderful morning together. For me, it was a very memorable experience.

    I can’t believe you knew (or remembered) that they were locally farmed raisins. I mean really, who remembers such an unusual detail? Must be the ‘executive’ in you – paying such close attention to that which can only be attributed to a reductionist mind.

    Laura, you make a very true statement (about individuals paying their dues and earning their stripes and such). At the same time, Bradley points out that while I am an ambitious person, I am also an ‘intensely curious’ person. What I appreciate so much about Bradley referring to me as ‘intensely curious’, is that it steers away from someone negatively labelling me as ‘analytic’ or ‘overly analytic’, which can so easily be bequeathed upon a technologist (i.e. – he or she is just a ‘techie’ or an ‘analyst’ and that is all they are good at).

    So thank you Bradley for attributing such a positive label to how my mind operates. Your way of understanding people is probably why you are so high up.

    Intensely curious…that is such a good way of putting it. Thank you.


  7. November 21, 2010 10:24 pm

    BTW – I do berries and nuts in my steel-cut oats with skim milk. Raisins are a very distant second.

  8. November 22, 2010 6:40 pm

    There are probably times when it’s a good thing to fake it. If my son is in surgery, and his doctor is all nerves going solo for the first time, the doctor better fake some confidence. If my customer just received 100,000 items for their big launch but their name is printed wrong on them I’d better fake the surety that we will make it right even as I’m wondering how I’m going to pull it off. If a platoon leader is leading the charge on a dangerous mission he’d better fake it to bolster his troops even if he isn’t sure they’ll make it back alive.

    Sometimes we just don’t feel the way inside that the situation calls for us to feel. In all of my examples above, the motivating factor wasn’t the person faking it but the person who needed a display of surety in leadership. It’s more of a selfless act. I think there is definitely a place for that type of faking in leadership. Faking it to prop yourself up in the eyes of others so that you look good almost always ends poorly and has no place in leadership.

    • November 22, 2010 7:20 pm

      I like your argument and your examples, Brad. I have situations almost daily where I have to exhibit a level of confidence I don’t feel in my gut. But in doing so, I also have to quickly assess whether this is a show of bravado with little hope of executing, or one of those situations that has to be resolved, so we assume it will be resolved, or one in which we are just going to be pushed hard but experience tells us we’ll get it done. There’s a difference between hope and wishful thinking in this realm as well as in spiritual matters. We’re pushing into another issue really – one of honesty (to ourselves and others) and truth-telling in business – too big a topic to start here, even though clearly related.

    • November 23, 2010 6:35 am

      Brad, I think what you are referring to here is good, old-fashioned Courage. I view courage as the ability to face a challenge despite our fears – pushing through the gut instinct that wants us to run away and hide from the perceived threat. All of your examples speak to me of courage, and it is a fact of leadership – sometimes we have to push through our own insecurities and fears, reach down deep inside and believe in our ability to get through, even if we don’t feel inspired to do it. Call it “faking it” or “courage”, to me it’s the same thing. But courage sounds better, doesn’t it?

  9. November 24, 2010 4:53 pm

    Just wanted to wish you and your family a very abundantly love filled Thanksgiving. Your daughter will be (or is ) home no doubt.

    While it isn’t our holiday here, my UMASS daughter is on her way, her first opportunity to come home because of the soccer season. No turkey, but lots of gratitude.

  10. November 24, 2010 6:19 pm

    Just popping in to wish you Happy Thanksgiving, Bradley. Sending prayers and blessings to your table.

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