The Danger of ‘Fake It Till You Make It’

Superhero belt buckle

Superhero belt buckleThe saying “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” always sounds great in theory. Certainly, there’s value in transforming the image that others hold of you. By looking and acting the part, it’s possible to shift perception and then perception becomes reality. Additionally, when you behave like the person you want to become versus the person you are in your most natural state, over time that enables you to change and adapt internally. But there’s a limit to dressing for the part.

It takes more than a utility belt and a cape to become a superhero.

Ask any front-line leader if they feel like they know what they’re doing, and most will say no. In fact, front-line leaders commonly report that they experience distress in their first year of leadership and question if they are ready for the responsibility. That deep sense of self-doubt is so common that is has been labeled imposter syndrome, and it is a difficult condition to shake.

Successful high achievers, entrepreneurs and top executives often tell young front-line leaders about how they once shared the same debilitating self-doubt, but they overcame the feeling by employing a “fake it till you make it” approach. These “fake it till you make it” stories are shared like glorified war stories and almost imply that feeling unprepared for the role is a right of passage. It’s as if “faking it till you make it” is the initiation one must survive in order to become the next Richard Branson or Steve Jobs.

But there’s a problem. For every famous CEO, Hollywood Star or athlete that shares an entertaining Fake It Till You Make It story, there are millions who faked it and failed.

It turns out, you can’t fake it forever. You can fake confidence. You can even fake knowledge for a short period of time to a select population, but at some point, there must be substance beneath the façade.

There’s a real and disturbing skills gap in front-line leadership that can’t be ignored. By romanticizing the few high achievers who used both charisma and hard work to overcome their lack of knowledge, we give new leaders license to behave recklessly and we fail to take accountability for the necessary work of developing a leader.

Imagine telling your child that when you were little, you didn’t know how to ride a bike either. But you chose to “fake it till you made it” and then one day, you woke up and realized you were actually riding a bike like a pro. For the child, the words would be encouraging. One day, the magical bike riding fairy will appear and make him the bike rider he always hoped he’d be. And he’d also be covered in bumps, bruises, and scrapes in a day. Those bumps, bruises, and scrapes are all the risks and costly mistakes a front-line leader would avoid if they were taught foundational management/leadership skills in addition to receiving confidence-building support from mentors.

No amount of wishful thinking, charisma, or acting can hide the lack of skill or competence forever. At some point, the gap will be exposed. The question is will the gap be exposed in one front-line leader’s skill set, or will the gap expose the organization’s lack of leadership development strategy?