Some leaders are essentially frauds

There have been many interesting and indeed bizarre impostors throughout history. Although somewhat forgotten about today, the notorious Count Victor Lustig who plied his deceptive trade in the early 1900s is one of my all time favourites. As a conman, he was exceptional and whilst he may have started on a small scale, he eventually worked his way up to one of the most famous scams of all time. One of Lustig’s early frauds used what he called the money-printing box. To unsuspecting wealthy, and more accurately greedy, targets he would show them how the box ‘printed’ a $100 dollar bill, but whilst doing so, complained that it took more than six hours to print each one. If only he could get it to work faster, he would lament. The victim, believing that with a bit of patience there was huge money to be made would purchase the box, usually for a large sum, only to realize twelve hours later that, after the box had produced two more $100 bills, only blank paper came out. By that time, Lustig was of course long gone.

He later graduated to his most celebrated feat that of selling the Eiffel Tower to an unsuspecting scrap metal dealer whilst posing as a French government official; a truly remarkable achievement it has to be said. In fact, he came within a whisker of selling it on a second occasion too. At a later stage, Lustig is also said to have convinced Al Capone, the famous gangster, to invest $50,000 in a stock deal. Lustig held the mafia man’s money in a bank for two months, then returned it to him, claiming that the deal had fallen through. Impressed with Lustig’s honesty, Capone gave him a reward $5,000 which was the whole idea of the scam in the first place. This guy was a real chancer if ever there was one.

From a less distant era, Frank William Abagnale, Jr, the notorious con artist from the 1960’s upon whom the movie Catch me if you can is loosely based also rates highly for his ingenuity and sheer brass neck. His exploits are legendary and include impersonating a doctor and an airline pilot where he succeeded in flying around the world for free. Now that was some achievement. Frank was eventually caught and has now turned over a new leaf having established a respected consulting company advising corporations on fraud prevention. Poacher turned gamekeeper you might even say.

Just like any fraudster or scam artist, I think certain leaders too are pretending to be something they are not and when you talk to them, many actually believe that they are good leaders. But they are only kidding themselves. Sure, they might be masquerading as effective leaders but for most of the time they are something else entirely. Like many people, you can probably think of a leader where you work – hopefully not yourself – who richly deserves the bad boss tag. You might not be able to quite put your finger on exactly why this is so, but you get the sense with some leaders that they are essentially trying to sell you the Eiffel Tower. Something about them just screams ‘fraud’.

It is important to emphasise that all leaders have the capacity to slip into what I call ‘impostor’ mode on occasion. But only on occasion and even when they do fall down, sometimes it is not really their fault. Underperforming and disengaged employees or stressful situations can bring out negative behaviours in any leader, pushing them over the edge and driving them to act and behave in ways they would not normally do. That does not make them bad bosses, however, because these are just infrequent lapses. All these incidents demonstrate is that they are human.

It is only those leaders who continually underperform in a sustained way and get it wrong more times than right when it comes to the engage-achieve relationship that truly deserve the ‘fraud’ title. Unfortunately, as we see in politics and business every day there are plenty of so-called leaders who just do not cut it when it comes to delivering on what leaders should do – namely, work with their people to achieve great things. When you look closely as I do every day there’s plenty of fake leaders out there. Sad, but true.

Enjoy your day!

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