A curiosity of sorts is in the natural behavior of people placed into leadership when neither their skillset nor experience warrants the placement. Over the past 5+ years I’ve been witness to multiple misplacements into senior leadership roles only to see their organizations swirl into a choreography of confusion and misaligned activities.

The leader (by title) assumes the role and it’s at this moment that we discover their authenticity or lack thereof. The effective leader will:

  • admit to themselves that they don’t know all they need to know to perform to expectations.
  • seek out trusted advisors, internally and externally, to support and reinforce them.
  • ask more questions than offer responses.
  • operate from a posture of humility and openness.
  • exercise active listening in every interaction, seeking first to understand and engage before being understood.
  • put the organization’s interests before their own.
  • be slow to judge, measuring thrice and cutting once.

An “imposter” is one who assumes a title and role to which they are not qualified and cannot genuinely perform. Far too many imposters are sitting in seats better filled by authentic leaders.

Upon assuming a leadership role, an imposter will:

  • adopt an authoritative demeanor and when pushed, will remind all within earshot that they’re in charge. After all, they hold the title and we all know the title makes them real.
  • grow increasingly agitated when pressed for decisions and directions. They will often knee jerk and toss out a statement or two that may or may not be interpreted accurately, leaving the hearer in a bind to either go with it or risk further ire by pressing for clarification.
  • over-commit their calendar in an attempt to be all things to all, assuming they have the answers to whatever might be posed.
  • avoid face-to-face meetings with those they believe don’t support their placement, question their direction, or somehow threaten their sense of authority. When such meetings do occur, the tension rises, and power-posturing occurs to send the message of who’s in charge.
  • swing to ever-increasing opposites in emotional expression. One day they may be happy-go-lucky, the next day dark and brooding. This see-saw behavior sends increasing uncertainty, doubt, and frustration to those in a direct reporting relationship with the imposter. This Jekyll & Hyde syndrome is rarely an outcome of neurosis or chemical imbalance, but rather the inner turmoil of pretense desiring balance which is not possible save for the pathologic.

This of course isn’t an exhaustive list of imposter ways and means, but the point is made that marks the imposter as fundamentally “un.” Unpredictable, unsure, unstable, unapproachable … “un.” But there is a better way.

Frankly, no one is perfect for every aspect of a given role. All have gaps, all have areas of weakness and deficiency. The gaps, weaknesses, and deficiencies aren’t the point … what a leader does in spite of them is. The authentic leader more often than not possesses an observable degree of emotional maturity.

We define emotional maturity as being self-aware but focused on the betterment of others. The opposite is true of the emotionally immature. They are marked as being self-focused and unaware of others.

When we know our shortcomings, acknowledge our gaps, and seek trusted input from others to grow and become increasingly effective, we enter into the space of authentic leadership. When we focus our attention on bettering others through the context of our self-awareness, we display the best that leadership has to offer.

One of the discoveries I’ve made along the way is that for almost everything good and true and right, there’s a counterfeit. Counterfeits are “near-genuine.” They appear genuine but when tested by time and the measure of consistency, they usually reveal their inauthentic nature.

Mike was placed in the C-suite of a national firm overseeing operations across six locations involving a few hundred people. He was amiable, smiled often, and was readily approachable. The problem was that Mike didn’t understand business operations, process, resource management, or how technology could be best employed to drive better efficiencies and design quality. Nonetheless, Mike was now placed over operations. It didn’t take long for his new direct-reports to figure out that Mike was an imposter, and soon after the proverbial bloom was off the rose.

Mike’s office bookshelf was lined with self-help books, design management tomes, and even a volume entitled, “Condensed MBA in 15 Chapters.” It appeared he was doing all he could to teach himself, but upon perusing the noted library I discovered none of the volumes had ever been opened. The crack of a new book is something I enjoy. An Amazon.com receipt was behind the row I was inspecting and listed each of the volumes on that shelf, all ordered several months earlier.

Mike maintained an amenable demeanor to those outside his organization but grew increasingly hostile, argumentative, and antagonistic towards his direct-reports and those he deemed disrespectful of his position. In one conversation I had with him he confessed his dislike of the team he’d adopted and stated, “Don’t they realize who I am? The board of directors appointed me to this position, and they owe me their respect!”

Mike didn’t get it. Several years later he still doesn’t, even after being removed from the role when a new CEO came into the firm. Mike operated as an imposter. He seemed the right fit for those not in his closest circle. He looked the part, spoke like he should, and took the limelight at times to validate himself. But time and inconsistencies caught up with Mike.

Each of us has a choice to make as leaders. Either we own our weaknesses and gaps, determined to better them through collaborative input and discipline, or we play the imposter and hope no one notices.

Editor’s Note: This is part 2 in a multi-part series. Click here to read Part 1.

Dave Gilmore is the president & CEO of DesignIntelligence.