Pretending in Leadership


“I started life as a very shy kid, an oldest ‘supposed’ to be, a role model for the younger ones, who has tried very hard to guess at what was required, and to ‘pretend’ to be more grown up than I really was. Almost 40 years ago, after I was married and had children, I became aware of the real me beneath the facade that others had erected. My life has been an ongoing struggle between the shy kid underneath and the ‘pretend’ that others want.”

Those who know me well might imagine the above paragraph as an excerpt from my personal journal. While the shoe fits, the words are not mine.

This self-exposing excerpt was written in 1985 by esteemed psychiatrist Murray Bowen in a personal letter to a trainee. It's a clear and honest confession by a highly accomplished professional. I found it in his archived papers at The National Library of Medicine.

Examples of pretense

The passage rang a bell because, in my leadership and succession work with organizations, I run up against pretense all the time. Here are some examples:

  • Marissa is continually passed over for promotion. She suspects that this is related to her position in a male-dominated company in a male-dominated field. When she brings this up to her boss, he gives explanations that defy or skirt reality: “It’s not the right time.” “I can’t leapfrog you ahead of Lawrence; that wouldn’t go well.” My conversations with the boss reveal that he’s concerned about her full acceptance by the management team. Instead of talking openly about it with her, he pretends by avoiding.

  • Cammy, an owner’s 30-something daughter, is named vice president of the family business by her dad and stepmother. She knows she struggles in her position, yet she routinely hides her mistakes to remain in her dad’s favor. She’s playing hide-and-seek, hoping not to be “found out.”

  • Shawn runs a high-tech fitness facility. His advertising campaign oozes with hyperbole: “The most comprehensive facility in upstate New York” (false). “Thirty days to flatter abs (dubious at best).” “Undisputed nutritional science (no, it’s disputed).” Shawn is flirting with integrity to build his business quickly. He’s pretending.

I frequently address pretense--and its consequences--in the workplace. It’s one thing to talk about or see it in others; it’s more difficult to see it in myself. For that reason, I try to surround myself with a few individuals who will point out my pretenses before they get out of hand.

Personal pretentions

Here are some “pretend” behaviors that have been brought to my attention in the past couple years:

Appearing to be smarter than I am

Thinking I know what’s best for my family members

Over-reacting to a fault in another that I myself share (and not acknowledging it)

Insisting I can do it myself (when it makes sense to seek and permit help)

Thinking I need to rescue everyone around me from adversity and hardship

Claiming – and even arguing – that I have no specific religious, personality or racial biases (even though I have many)

Sugarcoating my motives and intentions

Hearing about my pretense is never easy. I want to believe my good intentions protect me from pretending. My inner story is that I’m a good guy who tells the truth and wouldn’t hurt a flea. The unvarnished reality: Sometimes, that’s accurate. Sometimes, it’s not.

I use myself as an example, not because I am unique, but because I am susceptible to the pretense common to all humans. As leaders, we are particularly at risk of pretending. Why? We wake up every morning on a pedestal that others construct, with our encouragement. People look to us with respect and sometimes awe.

If we’re not awake, we can start believing we’re more genuine and self-revealing than we really are. In that case, we might miss the liberation that comes from acknowledging our humanity.

This is tricky stuff because there are times when pretending is wise and important. For example, if you have evidence that someone is out to get you, a clever camouflage or sidestep might save your life. Likewise, faking bravery in a time of crisis to prevent wider panic could be justified. But don’t let the exceptions become the rule.

Committing to authenticity can help you can stay vigilant about pretense in your demeanors, opinions, and decisions. What checks and balances can you impose on yourself?

Take time to identify situations where you tend to "fake it" to gain notice or standing. Ask yourself why.

Consider recruiting one or two trusted others to point out inconsistencies and slip-ups. For me, that has put teeth into my own commitment to reduce pretending.

Notice what happens when you drop the pretenses and deliver genuineness. When and with whom will you practice the art of being real?

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