Fake Leadership and Toxic Workplaces (Part 2)

By Nicole Barrett, Psychologist

Jul 08, 2019


This is a continuation of Fake Leadership and Toxic Workplaces Part 1. I recommend that you click on the link and first read Part 1 which sets the scene for some conscious reflection about a new wave of fake leadership that is pleasure seeking, pain avoiding and capable of crafting its own reality to keep a fake leader’s grandiose sense of self intact. Specifically, the article calls out defensive behaviours, such as doctoring company reports, that occur when leaders experience unpleasant emotions in response to feedback or an outcome that may reflect on them poorly.  

We should not be surprised that some leaders construct their own reality in order to look good. Even Trump dismisses contentious commentary about him as being ‘fake news’ and the term is fast becoming common in our everyday language. We are indeed subject to a post-truth era. Just the other day, I noticed that one magazine headline read that Harry and Meghan are having a baby yet another reported that they have split – how can they get away with it? When did we start to accept that fabrication is ok? That telling lies is normal practice and acceptable?

If this is the new norm, then we need to acknowledge that ‘fake news’ has made its way into the context of work and its being driven by leaders that can’t and won’t deal with anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or evokes any kind of pain. The problem is, if leaders don’t allow themselves to feel painful emotions, then it is impossible for them and the organisation to learn.

Fake leadership and toxic workplaces have always existed yet our research suggests that it becoming more prevalent. What I’m curious about is ‘why’ is this happening more frequently and what can be done about it? It’s a complex issue that requires consideration of the contextual, systemic and personal factors that are contributing to the current state of affairs in unique yet interconnected ways.

The changing context

We use the internet to research organisations that we might want to work in, do business with or invest in. This increased transparency raises the profile of leaders which is likely to escalate anxieties in terms of how they will be judged. Also, there are more expectations from stakeholders and the community with greater emphasis on companies operating in a socially responsible way. This places leadership front and centre and, should there be any data to the contrary, they will be motivated to protect themselves.

The introduction and our response to the use of email and mobile phones means that we are constantly on call and this contributes to people feeling important and needed. On Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn, everyone can have an opinion on everything for all the world to see. People use social media to create a perception of a perfect reality. How often do you, or do you see someone else, posting an Instagram photo of a shitty day, be it bad hair, a family crisis or one where life just gets on top of you?  These social platforms are constructing a fantasy world and have the potential to spark the narcissist in even the most balanced of people.

In the previous article, I raise how destructive defensive behaviours arise from having extreme needs - to be liked, perfect, in control and in the limelight. Two other contextual changes for consideration is the shadow side of extreme political correctness and concern for the safety and well-being of people. While understandable, has the pendulum swung too far? Is it no longer okay to speak an opinion and then open the conversation up for differing views? People are becoming highly sensitive to any form of criticism and, on the matter of safety, we are developing a society with reduced risk awareness and resilience in terms of our capacity to deal with pain. Take schools for example, everyone gets an award, they have removed swings because someone might get hurt and some ban parents from handing out birthday invitations in case a child will feel rejected. The unintended consequence of these trends is that our future leaders are not learning to work through and manage difficult emotions. Young people are developing an irrational belief system - that they are infallible and loved by everyone. That, I’m afraid, is just not how life works - not if we are being real.

These contextual changes are just some examples of factors that are potentially contributing to a new era of leaders that lack the ability to cope with feedback or being imperfect and therefor feel the compulsion to construct a world with fake news.

Institutionalised and systemic dynamics

Another reality is that we have created and live in a hierarchical system with a long history of ‘haves and have-nots’.  From the time we are born we are taught to unconditionally respect and admire experts and those in positions of authority and power and they have come to enjoy the privilege of us doing this.  Yet the ‘me too’ campaign and recent royal commissions are strong indicators that the system is changing. Employees and the wider community are becoming intolerant of aberrant leadership practices and the security and status of the people at the top is increasingly unstable. We only have to look at constant changes in our political system, entire councils getting sacked, professional sporting coaches outed at the drop of a hat and CEO’s falling from grace like never before. It is likely that we are seeing strong resistance among those that ‘have’ with leaders increasingly motivated to create their own reality and exercise all power to maintain the status quo (see The Silent Killer; people risks and culture).

Individual factors

There is no doubt that some personality characteristics, past experiences, personal values, hopes and desires exacerbate a leader’s proneness to exerting behaviours that protect the image of perfection. At a personal level, it’s near impossible to remain completely untouched by early relationships with parental and influential figures. It is our childhood experiences that shape or beliefs and form the basis of the narratives we hold that influence how each of us takes up a leadership or follower role. For this reason, the benefits of investing in leadership development and coaching are often limited by the extent to which leaders and their teams examine and progress the more complex person/system dynamics that occur in organisations. For example, leaders often trigger the parental dynamic in organisations which can play out in two ways.  The leader elicits a wonderous discovery-based environment where commitment and dedication are unleashed in the unconscious minds of their direct reports, or they elicit dislike or apathy when leaders fail to meet the parental expectations of their followers (see Yes Sir/No Sir; the unconscious dimension of leader and follower).  

What can be done about it?

The greatest challenge when working with fake leadership is the lack of self-awareness and the capacity to hear and work with criticism or feedback. This type of leadership is motivated to maintain a leader’s perceived sense of self and the status quo of their own minds. They will fight to maintain this in the face of data that contradicts their views or may compromise their position.

Fake leadership poses many risks and costs to an organisation in that this kind of leadership is unable to: benefit from the unexpected; possibilities get overlooked; leaders do not grow and mature; good people leave and the leaders do not face the moral gaps that appear in the act of organisational life.  At the very worst, fake leaders create toxic cultures and destroy morale, engagement and performance. If left unchecked, working in this environment has significant implications for the mental health of the workforce and it is highly likely that self-protection and unethical practices become normalised.


  • Allow yourself to experience and use the full array of emotions that come with the human condition - especially emotional or psychological pain. They are a perfectly normal reality and ensure our survival. As Brené Brown puts it, there can be no courage without vulnerability and the same principle applies to most emotions. Once emotions are identified, named and conscious, they can be used to fuel us in helpful and purposeful ways.
  • Create a separation between what you experience and how you interpret the experience. The more resilient you become the more graceful your emotional responses become and the more control you exercise over yourself in terms of congruency between your values, feelings and behaviour.
  • Find your pain points, learning edges and growth opportunities by regularly reflecting on and identifying gaps between what you say and what you do. Explore when you are stuck in repetitive patterns and examine the stories and narratives you tell yourself with the aim of disturbing them. Don’t sacrifice your consciousness and morality for the sake of feeling good.
  • Beware of distractors and seek maturity in your leadership by taking note of when you polarise things. Instead of right/wrong, good/bad, guilty/not-guilty - what other possibilities are there? What is the ‘and’? What is the real debate that needs to be had and explored?
  • Ask for feedback from colleagues and loved ones. People generally provide this with the best of intentions so how do you react to criticism? Do you justify and defend against feedback to find a way to avoid the pain, or do you use feedback to learn and grow? Instead of protecting yourself, like the man in the gas mask, lean into it and discover what you can use from the experience. The best feedback one can hope for is the feedback that hurts.
  • Be aware of using ‘yes’ men/women and willingly expose yourself to differing views and bad news, and then examine how you react. If your people always agree or have stopped contributing, this is a sure sign that you have given up your integrity for comfort, and your leadership practices need to be challenged.


  • Be extremely careful when setting KPI’s for senior leaders. Boards and executives must consider the unintended consequences and ensure KPI’s are not rewarding and driving the wrong behaviours. KPI’s that relate to the organisation’s people, or require the contributions of many to achieve success, are far more effective and reduce the risk of leaders being motivated by self-interests.
  • The more levels in the structure, the more likely fake leadership goes unchecked. Review the ratio of tops, middles and bottoms to ensure you have the right balance and that each layer is accountable for delivering valuable outcomes. You might also adopt processes to check and verify ground truth - that what is being ‘said’, or reported to you, is real and actually happening.
  • De-emphasise personal development designed to create an ‘ideal’ type of leader or work with personality styles only. This approach keeps the leader in the ‘personal’ sphere at the cost of working with the leader’s experiences that result from interfacing and being part of greater system and contextual dynamics. Instead, adopt a contemporary blend of leadership development interventions that ramps up your leader’s capacity to learn from mistakes, work with uncertainty, adapt to change quickly, collectively problem solve, leverage diversity and work purposefully in the here and now (see Training and Learning; why it's important to know the difference)  
  • Boards must reflect on their role, the boundaries of their role and the role they have in setting the tone and direction of the organisation’s culture and leadership practices.
  • Review the operating ethic of professional support functions in the organisation. For example, does the HR department work on the principle of protecting leaders from pain points in relation to their leadership practices? Are your HR people protecting themselves and doing the work for the leaders by altering or omitting the data that they share in order to make leaders happy?  The pursuit of happiness will result in an avoidance of growth, maturity and virtue in the organisation.
  • Undertake rigorous culture assessments and pulse checks at regular intervals and visibly act on the findings so that your people see that there is a commitment to development and improvement, and that its worthwhile getting involved.

A former politician that I've worked with previously sent me an email regarding Part 1 of this article. He reinforced that "almost universally, the anecdotal advice to me is that nothing is done upon complaint if the offender is making the firm money. Conversely, only pain and career limiting results fall upon the complainant." He also made note that 'fake' leadership is not the right term because, as offensive as they are, these people are in positions of leadership. I have to disagree - true leadership is a behaviour, not a title, and we are all capable of true leadership practices.

It's a sad state of affairs when money, shareholder value and protecting the status quo rules. What I can't fathom, is why some leaders, no matter how many development experiences or books they read, fail to embrace that creating employee value leads to customer value and everybody wins as a consequence. The system is strong and resistant. We must be brave and relentless in creating change and it all starts with you.

#fakeleadership #toxicworkplaces #insighttoinfluence

To find out how Insight to Influence can help you with culture, contemporary leadership development and team effectiveness, please contact us through the Insight to Influence website www.insighttoinfluence.com 

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