Counterfeit Leadership

by Joseph Kwon in


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One benefit of being a total newbie is you have lots of a-ha moments. Like my first trip to the driving range. As my friend and I were setting up, in strides Mr. PGA. He looked like he leapt straight out of a broadcast of the Masters - lean and athletic, draped in designer clothes from head to toe, hauling futuristic clubs and a golf bag that looked like it made cappuccino. And shades. Did I mention the shades? Very stylish, no doubt polarized and UV-protected. I think you know where this is going.

Mr. PGA takes some meaningful practice strokes, steps up to the tee, then THWACK! - proceeds to launch the ball sideways into the wooden divider between the stalls. Each swing it was like, "INCOMING!"

Contrast this with my first experience at the driving range with my mother-in-law. Unassuming outfit, clubs that don't require a second mortgage, and a golf bag that mostly just carries her clubs. I think you know where this is going.

She steps up to the tee, takes a few practice swings, sets up and PING! - launches an absolute missile! The ball flies straight as an arrow, starting out low and climbing relentlessly before settling down perfectly in the middle of the range. 

"This is all well and good, Joe and I like golf as much as the next person, but what does this have to do with leadership?"

Learning to "look" like a leader by imitating other leaders doesn't make you a leader. True leadership runs deeper than your appearance or behavior and springs forth from something invisible - your character. 

Confession time. I'm a shameless self-help book junkie. Also, never met an HBR article or leadership listicle I didn't like. Don't get me started on the many excellent business podcasts out there. But there is a hazard here. While I fully support learning leadership techniques to improve your ability, doing this alone is insufficient.

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In fact, if you spend most of your time trying to say or do the right things, but don't truly live the underlying principles, you will have a problem. At best you will be humored and ineffective and at worst you will be branded a counterfeit and President of the "Not Self-aware Club."

"You're losing me, Joe. What are you talking about?"

Let's take empathy as an example. Let's assume for a second you are on the low end of the empathy spectrum. Not a judgment, just a point in time measurement. All the leadership literature is saying how important empathy is and you've decided to board the empathy train. "All aboard!"

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You can learn the type of words that show empathy and start to throw them out on a semi-regular basis. But when there is a red-alert situation requiring empathy and you don't truly have or feel empathy, you will a) not remember to be empathetic or b) use words of empathy, but poorly and not convincingly. In other words, knowing what words are used to show empathy does not make you a more empathetic person. It's your character and in this case, caring and ability to see things from another's point of view that is the key. The actions you take and the words you use naturally flow from this. If you don't truly feel empathy in this situation, anything you say will ring hollow.

Like animals sense fear, people sense counterfeit leadership.

To avoid the sand trap of counterfeit leadership, follow these 3 EZPZ steps:

1. Do read, learn and receive as much training as you can about leadership. 

2. Instead of fixating on leadership attributes or behaviors, think deeply about why those attributes or behaviors inspire others.

3. Develop your character into that of a person who inspires others. For example, someone who connects with others, earns trust, and truly cares about the mission, the company, and the team.

In other words, character first, actions second. It's all downhill (in a good way) from there! 

If you have additional thoughts on leadership and leadership development, including any experiences that changed your perspective, I would love to hear about them!
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Next post next Saturday, 6:30 a.m.