Fakes and the Self-deceived


In the past few days, much has been said about the “fake” sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. As of this writing, it hasn’t been determined how this unknown man made it past South African or US Secret Service screening. What is clear, though, is that the man does not know sign language and has performed this act at least once before, last year with South African President Jacob Zuma. Why would someone do such a preposterous thing? Is this a very poor joke? Is the man delusional? That may yet be determined, but this story suggests some questions for self-reflection.

As this story illustrates, fakes are found out pretty quickly. With what little I know of sign language, I am sure that this fake was discovered within just a few seconds of the beginning of his act. Leadership is much the same way. Those who know the language of leadership (and virtually every follower does!) can tell pretty quickly whether a person in a position of leadership is truly a leader. In these situations fakes are detected very quickly, and trust and confidence are lost almost immediately. This undermines the ability for a group to work together effectively.

When senior leaders make a mistake and install a fake leader, the best action is to act carefully, but fast. Followers of the fake leaders are watching how senior leaders address the situation. Lack of action will undermine trust and confidence at the senior level, too.

Fortunately, there aren’t many people who intentionally pass themselves off as something they aren’t and get away with it. Although, the story of Frank Abagnale is a fascinating and notable exception. More often, the problem we have to deal with is cases of over-confidence and self-deception.

These are situations in which the leader has at least some leadership skill. They have legitimately earned the right to be be in a position of authority and responsibility. However, in some important dimension of their leadership, they are over-confident and do not have an accurate picture of their own abilities. Actual fakes are easily detected and filtered out of the system pretty quickly. Over-confident and self-deceived leaders are much harder to detect and deal with.

Initially, the problem just appears to be a quirk in how they lead. We try to explain away the problem as not being significant given their overall strengths in leadership. And yes, all leaders have weaknesses. What I’m addressing, though, is truly fatal flaws. When these flaws are not called out and dealt with quickly, there will be casualties.

Several years ago, I knew a “leader” whose stated responsibility included working with stakeholders across all functional areas of the organization. Success in his role meant listening to a broad spectrum of people and dealing with all kinds of personalities. Unfortunately, he did not understand how poor his people skills were. During corporate events, he spent as much time as possible in his office, not spending time with others. He walked halls with his head down focusing on reports in his hands, not head up, greeting others with a smile and an encouraging word. He was also rather intolerant of differences of opinion and accumulated a number of strained relationships.

When this person felt it was time to move on to a similar job elsewhere (he understood his days were limited but not why), he asked me to be a personal reference. I did a difficult thing and provided honest feedback about his people skills. He was understandably hurt, but, sadly, he was also surprised. He was over-confident and self-deceived.

The hardest part about this problem is that, by definition, you and I are not aware of our own over-confidences and self-deceptions. Unless we’ve been told, we do not know where our personal evaluations are not aligned with reality.

Are you over-confident or self-deceived? Sit down with a few people who know you well and ask. It may be (will be) a very difficult thing to do. You must be humble and vulnerable. You must listen without offering explanations or excuses. You must be willing to look into a dark place in your life.

Here’s the good news, if you’re a follower of Christ, you can trust Him to help you. Jesus already knows your flaws and knows how to help you with them. Once you understand where you need to grow, ask Him for help.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo by AFP.

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