How to Spot a Real Leader and an Impostor

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.

Similar things happen at the national level. We elect people to all levels of leadership based on such things as name recognition, the amount of money they can raise, or the fact they have an R or D behind their name. As a result, we get a lot of people who claim they’re “leaders,” but they’re impostors as well.

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 that real leaders exhibit certain characteristics. I’ll give you a few of those characteristics so you can use them to guide your own personal and professional development.

► 1. A real leader wins WITH others and shares the credit. An 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.”

Doug Crozier is one of those real leaders who wins with others. As the founder and CEO of The Solomon Foundation (a $1B Christian investment company), he holds meetings every month with his entire staff to share what is going on behind the scenes and to learn what concerns they might have.

Taking the win-with-others approach even further, Crozier meets every month with hundreds of investors, letting them know how every dollar of their money is being used. The investors, in turn, have the opportunity to ask all the questions they want, with no question ever being off limits.

How rare is that? I doubt you’ve ever been given the chance to meet with the founder and CEO of each of the funds where you invest your money even once, let alone a monthly two-way dialogue.

Crozier even takes it a step further. He meets every week with the hundreds of pastors whose churches are connected to The Solomon Foundation. He makes sure they get solid leadership training at every one of those meetings so each and every one of them is highly effective and truly successful in their ministries.

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.

It’s also why I’m inviting you to join my new, first-time offering of my new five-week virtual class on PEOPLE POWER: How To Make Any Relationship Sizzle. It starts May 24, 2022 at 7 pm Eastern Time.

► 2. A real leader demonstrates an unshakeable positive attitude. An 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.

Look at Saddam Hussein, for example. He killed thousands but went running off to hide in a hole when his bluff was called. That’s what impostors do.

► 3. A leader accepts responsibility. An impostor 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.”

How refreshing!

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.

I think the public is hungry for real political leaders who accept responsibility and speak the truth. The public would applaud a President who admits, “Even though we hoped and planned for transformation, I have to say our trillion-dollar program did not work.” They’re tired of the spin tactics used by the impostors.

And employees would stick with a CEO who was 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 would boost the morale in almost any organization. The people would know they have a real leader at the helm and not an impostor.

Stay tuned for next week when I share more of what a real leader and an impostor looks like.