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Counterfeit Leadership

6 min read

© 2011 Frank Sonnenberg. All rights reserved.  

The responsibility of a leader is to lead. (What a concept.) The fact is, some leaders are causing irreparable damage to great institutions by shirking their responsibilities. They’re afraid to address difficult issues, make tough decisions, and introduce the change that’s required to achieve long-term success. Instead, these “counterfeit leaders” spend much of their time playing politics, protecting their turf, and promoting their self-interests. To make matters worse, counterfeit leaders, in both public and private sectors, often masquerade as positive role models while condoning unethical or irresponsible behavior that undermines the very foundation of their institution.

With full complicity, we reward these misguided efforts by electing politicians for “life” and by paying executives zillions of dollars to damage the same organizations that they “swear” to serve. And just to show there are no hard feelings when things do go irreparably wrong, we offer many of our “finest” golden parachutes to make sure they have a soft landing into their next misadventure.

How do you spot a counterfeit leader?

Here are some ways to evaluate our leaders:

Are you a leader (in name only)?

Counterfeit leaders take the easy road by accepting the status quo — even if they foresee difficult days ahead. They sidestep tough issues and kick the can down the road so that the day of reckoning falls on someone else’s watch.


On the other hand, real leaders are visionaries with a “can-do” attitude. They take on the impossible, while their timid colleagues look for the exits. In the process, real leaders confront issues and obstacles head-on and make decisions that position their organizations successfully for the future. This means that their decisions won’t always be popular, but they will be considered deliberate and fair; short-term results won’t always be stellar, but long-term investments will secure a brighter future; these leaders won’t always be loved, but they will be trusted and respected.

Do you take a strong stand?

Counterfeit leaders evade decisions like the plague. They study problems, hire consultants, hide behind committees and task forces, and when in doubt, procrastinate — anything to shun accountability.


Conversely, real leaders have a backbone. They make every effort to gather information, weigh alternatives, secure buy-in from their constituents, and determine the best course of action. Real leaders focus precious resources in areas that provide the greatest opportunity rather than trying to please everyone or making arbitrary, across-the-board decisions.

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