A basketball coach recently described one of the girls on her team as a “False Leader”.  As it was a new term to me, I asked the coach what she meant.

She described how Didi (not her real name) initially came across to the coaches as the natural leader within the team with her charismatic personality, outgoing demeanor, and confidence to speak up both on and off the court.  No surprise, as these characteristics are consistent with commonly held views of strong leaders.

However, over the next weeks and months, Didi showed herself to be more a “ring leader” than a team leader.  Rather than helping to coalesce the team toward a common goal as they had hoped, Didi brought others away from the team vision.  Worse yet, she was divisive as her powerful personality attracted a loyal following among some team members while leaving others at the periphery.

As it turned out, Didi was only about Didi.  When her interests aligned with those of the team it all worked, but often, her self-oriented goals were bad for the team.

The coach went on to mention that she hoped that one or two others would emerge as the True Leaders of the team.  However, Didi’s dominance presented a challenge:  while these others genuinely embodied the values that would make the team successful, they were younger, quieter role models and found it hard to shift the dynamic away from Didi.

Of course, the same situations occur in the business world.  And to paraphrase the super-hero comic books, if only all leaders would “use their powers for good, not evil”.

In the meantime, here are some thoughts on what we can do:

  • Become highly attuned to intent – both in ourselves and in others:  intent is what fundamentally differentiates False Leaders from True Leaders.
  • Help False Leaders to change if they can, and if they cannot, then stop backing them.  The damage that False Leaders can do to the rest of the organization can be significant, and it is an unsustainable path (for both backer and backee).
  • Help True Leaders to be seen – often, people with genuine positive intent are not the most “flashy”, but may have the most staying power.  Remember that while peacocks (like False Leaders) put on a beautiful display, they tend not to fly for very long.