For years, we’ve been promoting people in organizations to positions of leadership because they have one of two things going for them. They have been around for a while or they were good at their previous job.
Little or no consideration is given to their demonstrated leadership ability. And to make things worse, many of those same organizations give those new “leaders” almost no leadership training whatsoever.
Then people wonder why those leaders aren’t getting the best results. The answer is simple. They’re not “leaders;” they’re impostors. A person doesn’t become a leader just because they get a title.
I suggest a new approach. Start with a clear definition of strong, healthy, effective leadership and then see how people stack up against that definition. You’ll soon see who the real leaders are and who the impostors are. From my experience, perspective, and research, I would say real leaders exhibit certain characteristics.
Leader: Wins with others and shares the credit.
Impostor: Does neither.
In other words, real leaders are a lot more focused on building a team where everyone wins and not just the so-called leader. As leadership author John C. Maxwell writes, “If I want to do something good, I can do it on my own. If I want to do something GREAT, I’m going to have to develop a team.”
Real leaders win with others. Educator G. Arthur Keough says, "Greatness is not standing above our fellows and ordering them around. It is standing with them and helping them to be all they can be."
A real leader wins with others and shares the credit. A real leader gives a lot of credit to the team they assembled or helped develop.
That’s why I absolutely cringe when I hear an impostor “leader” going on and on, saying “I did this … and … I did that.” Impostors let their ego, greed, power lust, dog-eat-dog competitiveness, and self-serving get-ahead attitude take center stage.
How good are you at winning with others? On the job and at home? After all, we are reminded by Dr. William W. Mayo, the founder of the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, that “No one is big enough to be independent of others.”
Dr. Mayo is absolutely right. “No one is big enough to be independent of others.” That’s why coaching has proven to be such a powerful tool for people to make major steps forward, personally and professionally. And that’s why I save room in my schedule to work with a small number of people who want one-on-one coaching from me.
Leader: Demonstrates an unshakeable positive attitude.
Impostor: Simply puts on the face.
In other words, they exude energy. They display enthusiasm. They project cheerfulness. And it is nothing short of contagious
I’m sure you’ve come across some leaders like that. No matter what is going on, you’ve noticed that leader’s department is filled with people who are pumped up, excited, and connected. You may have even wished you were a part of that department … because it’s only natural to be drawn to such high levels of energy.
Of course, an unshakeable positive attitude does not eliminate all fear. It simply keeps you going and gets you beyond the fear. That’s how Mayor Rudy Guiliani handled the 9/11 disaster. He projected a positive image because he knew a key truth. As he said, "Pessimistic leaders always fail."
Continuing his comments, Guiliani said, "In a crisis you have to be optimistic and ignite hope in others. Shortly after September 11, I said the spirit of the city would be stronger. At the time, I didn't know that for certain. In the back of my mind, I had doubts. I had to shove them out and not listen to those doubts. If you let fear, worry, and doubt overcome you, you will lose the battle."
A real leader demonstrates an unshakeable positive attitude when things are going well and not so well. Impostors, on the other hand, are all about bluster and image. Just take a look at the dictators that have made the news in recent years. They have no problem shutting down or even killing their opponents, looking powerful on the outside. But when they’re cornered, they’re nothing more than cowards. That’s what impostors do.
Leader: Accepts responsibility.
Imposter: Always finds someone to blame.
A real leader accepts responsibility for the good and the bad. As Lain Clark, one of the executives at AEGON Scotland and one of my clients, puts it, “Leaders accept responsibility for the decisions they make and take full responsibility for any resulting failures.”
Of course, it takes a certain degree of humility to be a leader who accepts responsibility. But people respect leaders who are willing to say, “I was wrong. I’m sorry. But we’re going to do better next time.”
Unfortunately, it is much more common to see ego-driven impostors who take all the credit when one of their decisions works out well. And when one of their decisions proves to be wrong or even disastrous, they cannot be found, go silent, or blame someone else for their failures.
And employees stick with a an owner, president or chief executive who is honest enough and brave enough to say, “My re-organization plan did not work out as I had hoped. I accept responsibility for my misguided decision and I ask for your support in turning things around.”
Such a bold move boosts the morale in almost any organization, and the people within recognize they have a real leader at the helm and not an impostor.
Leader: Does the right thing.
Impostor: Does the politically advantageous thing.
As I often say in my 4C Leadership program, “Real leaders do the right thing, not because they think it will change the world, but because they refuse to be changed by the world.”
Notice the emphasis on the word do. It’s not enough to KNOW what is right. You must also have the courage of your convictions and DO what is right. Even when no one is looking. And even if it’s going to cost you something.
By contrast, impostors may not even know what is right. And if they do know, they may not do it if they can get ahead or get an advantage taking a different course of action.
In other words, real leaders focus their energy on doing the right thing … instead of spending all of their time on the superficialities of “looking good” and “sounding good.” Real leaders are guided by a strong moral compass instead of a slick spin artist.
Leader: Has character.
Impostor: Is a character.
While it's true that people are more willing to work with people they know and like, it's even more true that they're much more willing to follow people with impeccable character.
John Wooden, the greatest basketball coach of all time, knew that. He was more than a sports coach. He was a real leader on and off the court, who continually told his players and audiences: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
When your people display character, then they become real leaders who can be counted on, who are consistent, and who care for others, without any strings attached.
A real leader is real and authentic. An impostor does not possess any of those things.
By contrast, impostors put on a different face for their bosses, coworkers, customers, friends, and family members. After a while, you’re not sure who they really are because they’re more of a character and a caricature than anything else.
Leader: Builds win-win relationships.
Impostor: Uses people.
This doesn't mean a real leader has to be buddies with everyone on the team or in the organization. That may not even be possible, let alone wise.
However, a real leader is out front, building strong, positive, respectful, cooperative, win-win relationships with lots of people. Impostors may be hiding in their offices or behind a computer, limiting themselves to a few “chosen” people with whom to interact.
Perhaps, deep down, impostors are afraid. After all, relationship building takes time, which they may not be willing to invest. And relationship building takes talent, which they may not have or may not be willing to learn.
To be a real leader, build helping relationships. As Tom Coleman, a clients in the National Guard, points out: “Success is utilizing and sharing your experiences to assist others in achieving their goals."
And client Ed Caldwell, the Vice President of Protective Life, talks about how the real leaders in his career set him up for success. "I have been blessed with four mentors and bosses over the last 30 years who took the time to build a relationship with me, who gave me candid feedback on the differences between leadership and management, and provided specific guidance at key points in my career. Those relationships created what I consider to be the real turning points in my personal and professional development."
Snow Magazine Contributor Dr. Alan Zimmerman is a business coach who works with companies to focus on transforming the people side of business.