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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

Three Bad Habits of Fake Leaders


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?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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