Counterfeit Leadership

Leadership, Leadership qualities, leadership definition, Frank Sonnenberg

The responsibility of a leader is to lead. (What a concept.) The fact is, some leaders are causing irreparable damage to great institutions by shirking their responsibilities. They’re afraid to address difficult issues, make tough decisions, and introduce the change that’s required to achieve long-term success. Instead, these “counterfeit leaders” spend much of their time playing politics, protecting their turf, and promoting their self-interests. To make matters worse, counterfeit leaders, in both public and private sectors, often masquerade as positive role models while condoning unethical or irresponsible behavior that undermines the very foundation of their institution.

With full complicity, we reward these misguided efforts by electing politicians for “life” and by paying executives zillions of dollars to damage the same organizations that they “swear” to serve. And just to show there are no hard feelings when things do go irreparably wrong, we offer many of our “finest” golden parachutes to make sure they have a soft landing into their next misadventure. How do you spot a counterfeit leader?

5 Characteristics of Effective Leadership

Are you a leader (in name only)? Counterfeit leaders take the easy road by accepting the status quo –– even if they foresee difficult days ahead. They sidestep tough issues and kick the can down the road so that the day of reckoning falls on someone else’s watch.

Vision. On the other hand, real leaders are visionaries with a “can-do” attitude. They take on the impossible, while their timid colleagues look for the exits. In the process, real leaders confront issues and obstacles head-on and make decisions that position their organizations successfully for the future. This means that their decisions won’t always be popular, but they will be considered deliberate and fair; short-term results won’t always be stellar, but long-term investments will secure a brighter future; these leaders won’t always be loved, but they will be trusted and respected.

Do you take a strong stand? Counterfeit leaders evade decisions like the plague. They study problems, hire consultants, hide behind committees and task forces, and when in doubt, procrastinate –– anything to shun accountability.

Conviction. Conversely, real leaders have a backbone. They make every effort to gather information, weigh alternatives, secure buy-in from their constituents, and determine the best course of action. Real leaders focus precious resources in areas that provide the greatest opportunity rather than trying to please everyone or making arbitrary, across-the-board decisions.

Where does the buck stop? Counterfeit leaders are masters at playing politics, finger pointing, and finding others to shoulder the blame. They measure every action by protecting their turf and promoting their self-interests.

Humility. On the other hand, real leaders do what’s right –– period. Real leaders recognize that their stance represents something much larger than the whim of any one individual –– as such, they put their egos and self-interests on hold. Real leaders do what’s in the organization’s best interest rather than trying to win a popularity contest, playing politics, or advancing their own private agenda.

Do you value integrity? Counterfeit leaders turn a blind eye to unethical behavior. To them, it’s not how you play the game; it’s all about winning. They believe that stepping on employees, squeezing vendors, or cheating a customer to make a quick sale is just the cost of doing business. In politics, running dishonest advertising against an opponent, sneaking through legislation in the wee hours, or sheltering a colleague from ethics charges is fair game. Counterfeit leaders believe the end always justifies the means –– anything goes (as long as you hit your numbers or score points for your political party).

Integrity. On the contrary, real leaders operate with integrity at all times; they are passionate about protecting their personal integrity and the reputation of their organization. They understand that trust takes a long time to develop, but can be lost in the blink of an eye. Real leaders know that instilling a strong culture and promoting ethical core values are instrumental for success. In fact, in today’s turbulent times, everything is subject to change except an organization’s core values.

Are you building a legacy for others to follow? Counterfeit leaders focus all of their efforts on short-term success — at the expense of the organization’s future. Shortsighted leaders skimp on R&D, cut spending on capital equipment and new infrastructure, apply Band-Aids to serious problems, fail to develop key employees, and ram through major legislation without bipartisan support. Counterfeit leaders don’t care about the future because they won’t be rewarded for those efforts. Instead, the future takes a back seat to hitting the next quarterly bonus or winning the next election.

Credibility. On the other hand, real leaders maintain a balance between short-term performance and building a better future. Real leaders know that short-term wins enable leaders to build trust, instill confidence, and maintain momentum. This provides them with enough credibility to make strategic investments and tackle the long-term challenges that ensure success. Real leaders understand the importance of motivating others to accept personal sacrifice to benefit others.

Leadership: Are You Up to the Job?

Real leaders set the tone from the top. They espouse a visible and meaningful vision that promises a better future than the prevailing conditions. The vision may be precise or vague, it may be a specific goal or a dream of a better future — but it must be attractive, realistic, and believable. A compelling vision provides direction, promotes excitement, and inspires commitment.

Creating a vision, however, isn’t enough. The vision must be brought to life and rooted in the culture. Real leaders never miss an opportunity to lead by example, serving as positive role models and reinforcing the beliefs and values of the organization.

Real leaders achieve success by setting the bar high, encouraging teamwork, promoting win-win relationships, and demanding everyone’s best effort. Real leaders win the support of their constituents by earning their trust and respect. This is achieved through powerful ideas, personal expertise, and impeccable integrity rather than through their position or by “pulling rank.”

Real leadership also means making hard choices, overcoming difficult challenges, and encouraging constituents to embrace change. Real leaders are not afraid to take a firm stance and accept responsibility for their decisions. In so doing, decisions are never made to win a popularity contest or to placate everyone by being all things to all people. Precious resources are allocated in areas where they provide the greatest good while carefully balancing short-term performance with long-term success. And, while you may not always agree with a real leader’s decision, you’ll always know that every decision was made in an honest, fair, and objective fashion. You’ll never have to second-guess a real leader’s intent; you’ll know what he or she stands for.

All great leaders, whether in the public or private sector, make people feel proud of the institution they represent and realistic about the future. When a real leader promotes a common end, people begin to work as a team rather than at cross-purposes with one another. Self-interests wind up on the backburner, while individuals begin working together for a higher purpose — the common good. And that, my friend, is what real leadership is all about.

How Do You Define Outstanding Leadership?

Additional Reading:
Bluffing Your Way to the Top
Here’s to the Unsung Hero

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  1. Leyane Jerejian says


    Well said and I couldn’t agree more. And thank you for not just focusing on the problem, you always give solution. So important!

    Just goes to show that whatever we’re doing in our personal and professional lives leading a company, raising a family, beginning to advance in a career… it’s always so much greater than that!

  2. Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach says

    Excellent points Frank. The damage done by a leader gripped in cowardice or denial is far greater than most imagine.

    I have consulted to new leaders and rebuilt the teams that were the targets of (as you say it) “counterfeit leadership”.

    It takes honesty, empathy, and drive to bring an org. back from such deception.

    Many thanks for this post. And the title truly captures the impact of the behavior.

    Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach

  3. George says

    I don’t know if there ever was a Golden Age of leadership, but we certainly don’t have it now, at least not in the public and corporate spheres. Our politicians are spineless, and coprorate executives continue their greedy and unethical ways despite the incredible economic collapse they caused. Essentially, the public and corporate sectors are deeply rotten and corrupt at the highest levels.

    That said, where does it leave the rest of us ? If we are to have any optimism about the future, we have to do whatever we can in those areas where we do have some influence, be that in the home or in the workplace.

    It won’t change the world, but it will make our smaller worlds better places.

    As Frank says, real leaders achieve success by setting the bar high, encouraging teamwork, promoting win-win relationships, and demanding everyone’s best effort.

    As always, Frank gives us some guidelines and confidence that we can make a difference and make our somewhat smaller world a better place.

  4. Frank Sonnenberg says

    Leyane, kate, George, Christopher

    Thanks so much for your thoughts.

    Leyane, One of my early mentors taught me never to complain about a situation unless you have a solution to fix it . . . so true.

    kate, I’m sure that you face “Counterfeit Leaders” every day. If they only realized that “real” leadership has a direct impact on the bottom line.

    George, The fact that we are talking about the issue is a very positive step. It’s when we don’t realize there’s a problem, that we’re really in trouble. Plus, someone once commented [on one of my posts] that in a true democracy, if we don’t speak up, we get what we deserve.

    Christopher, Thanks for your kind words. Knowing the great work that you do in teamwork, I’m not surprised that this would hit home.

    Have a great day!


  5. John Serpa says

    Great Blog, could be a chapter in a book! Really good points and unfortunately, true in most cases. I often wonder how some people are appointed the leadership positions they have. However, you don’t need a title to be a leader, you just need to care more about others then yourself.

  6. Terry Del Percio says

    Hi Frank: Very important post.

    When I was engrossed in the corporate arena, I was often discouraged my the number of “counterfeit leaders” I interacted with every day. I love how you have articulated the nuanced characteristics that true leaders need: real leaders have a backbone; real leaders operate with integrity at all time; real leaders do what’s right –– period.

    I would add one more to your great list: Real leaders treat people with dignity and respect. I hope a lot of counterfeit leaders are mandated to read your post.

    Keep ’em coming!

    Terry Del Percio

  7. Ed Han says

    Frank, this is excellent. I particularly liked where you addressed legacy and the terms in which you did so.

  8. Sarah @RaisingCEOKids says

    Thank you for so thoroughly addressing what is true and helpful leadership and what is not. It is so important that we teach these concepts to the younger generation as well!

    Sarah Cook
    Founder of Raising CEO Kids

  9. Rossana says

    Excellent Frank! This blog reminded me of the opening scene of the film “Gladiator” since it also demonstrates real leadership. Maximus is in the battlefield with his men, fighting alongside of them (instead of on the sidelines). He is a principled leader, fighting for the “glory of Rome” instead of his own ego. He also uses an “envision the goal” technique for getting through the horrors of battle. He takes risks with his own life to achieve that goal. That’s a real leader.

  10. Frank Sonnenberg says

    Rob, John, Terry, Ed, Sarah and Rossana

    Thanks for dropping by :-)

    Rob, I’m so glad that you enjoyed the post. Good luck in your next run for Congress.

    John, if you’re wondering how people get promoted, please read my post, “Bluffing your Way to the Top” You’re spot on with your comment about “caring about others more than yourself.”

    Terry, I love your comment “Real leaders treat people with dignity and respect” Great point.

    Ed, thanks as always for your comments. I agree . . .creating a legacy for the next generation is key.

    Sarah, I love the work that you do. If anyone will teach the next generation about the importance of these values it’s you!

    Rossana. Great analogy!!! (BTW, I love that movie)

    Have a great day!


  11. Susan Mazza says

    Well said Frank! And I echo what Kate said “The damage done by a leader gripped in cowardice or denial [or unabashed self interest] is far greater than most imagine.”

    Perhaps the worst damage is to the human spirit of those left in the wake of a counterfeit leader – they tend to leave a palpable trail of resentment, resignation and even cynicism.

  12. Felix P. Nater says

    George, while you maybe right on the Golden Age of Leadership, Frank Sonnenberg is my Golden Age Of Principled Accountable Leadership.

    Frank makes an interesting correlation between employee safety & security, counterfeit leadership and leadership that may not recognize their predicaments. Workplaces that have hostile people security issues are experiencing a breakdown of authentic leadership caused by counterfeit leaders who turn their backs or fail to supervise.

    They are the ones who intimidate you in private under the cover of not publicly humiliating you. They hold team meetings and blame the members for making him/her look bad. “Real leaders never miss an opportunity to lead by example, serving as positive role models and reinforcing the beliefs and values of the organization”.

  13. Dan Fonseca says

    A lot of great points here Frank. Loved this one. I remember in my OB class we spoke on leadership and we learned about its three pillars. Leadership must 1) have a vision 2) be able to articulate the reality and finally 3) create that good conflict where positive ideas come from. Failing in any of those regards will result in poor leadership. Note that leadership and power are two different things as well. Thanks again!


  14. George M. says

    Excellent observations Frank. With one exception every boss I have ever had, including my current CEO, has played the counterfeit leader game. All but the one have blamed others for the situation, and refused to do the right thing, regardless of how difficult, to FIX the problems.

    I am almost never the smartest person in the room yet I can almost always see through the politically correct, nonsense ideas being pushed. I often recognise stupid for what it is, but seem unable to correct it due to not being polished enough and lacking the proper pedigree.

    The few leaders I know who genuinely know the problems and the proper solutions are typically cowards who refuse to rock the boat. After all, most leaders did not get the positions they have by doing what is right. They usually get into their positions by going with the flow.

    Leaders must have true convictions and core values. This is not the same as being able to communicate what you think others want to hear.

    George M.

  15. Linda Fisher Thornton says

    Thank you for bringing this important issue to life Frank. My favorite quote is “counterfeit leaders, in both public and private sectors, often masquerade as positive role models while condoning unethical or irresponsible behavior that undermines the very foundation of their institution.”

    This quote in a recent fortune cookie highlights courage as the key to standing up for what’s right, even when it is difficult: “Courage is rightly considered the foremost of the virtues, for upon it, all others depend.”


  16. Frank Sonnenberg says

    Susan, Felix, Dan, George, Linda

    Thanks so much for your thoughts.

    Susan, thanks so much for taking this piece to the next level. Your newest post, “Filling the void of real leadership” is excellent!

    Felix, Thanks as always for your encouragement and support. Your points are right on the mark. “Workplaces that have hostile people and security issues are experiencing a breakdown of authentic leadership caused by counterfeit leaders who turn their backs or fail to supervise.”

    Dan, I love the fact that you’re applying these principles to your coursework.

    George, You make great points. “Leaders must have true convictions and core values. This is not the same as being able to communicate what you think others want to hear.”

    Linda,You and the fortune cookie are right :-) It does take courage. That’s what real leadership is all about.

    Have a great day and a Happy Fourth of July.



  17. Shawn Murphy says

    Just want to say I’m grateful that you’re shining the light on behaviors that pass as leadership but really have nothing to do with it.

    As always, good stuff.

  18. Frank Sonnenberg says

    Thanks for your kind words Shawn. Thank YOU for helping me spread the word.

    Have a great weekend,


  19. Beyond Horizons says

    A very insightful post!
    People live under this misconception that a leader is someone who is in a ‘position of power’. But it is not your ‘title’ that makes you a leader, and it is not the power that comes with the title that makes you a leader. It is what you do with the power and title that makes you a leader.
    Leadership is not about ‘personal success’. Leaders bring about changes and improvements in the people that work with and for them. As they move forward and grow, they take their people with them. Wise leadership, that has a strong ethical and moral base become the need of the hour.

    On a relevant note, I really liked the feature written by Professors Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi called ‘The Wise Leader’ ( Dawna Maclean has summed up this article very succinctly in her post titled ‘What Makes a Wise Leader?’ (

    – Sindoora (

  20. Frank Sonnenberg says


    Thanks so much for your comments. They are very astute.

    Today’s employee want to work for a company where they are encouraged to make a meaningful contribution; where procedures, policies, and paperwork are never more important than results; and where building bonds between people is considered as important as the bottom line. The question is, “Is it possible to create this kind of environment and strive for market leadership?” The answer is, “You don’t have much of a choice.”

    Also, thanks so much for highlighting additional reading material. I’ll be sure to read them.

    Have a great day Sindoora!



  21. Meredith Bell says

    Frank, this is truth-telling at its best. I like the way you contrasted the counterfeit from the genuine. It really is distressing that so many people we elect today in political positions fall so short of the desired qualities you describe here. What’s more unfortunate is that those who need your message most either won’t read it or won’t recognize themselves if they do.

    What you’re describing are what my business partner Denny Coates refers to as “personal strengths” and they can be developed throughout one’s life. He writes a lot about this topic on his blog:

    Thank you for your voice on things that really matter.

  22. Frank Sonnenberg says

    Thanks so much for your thoughts Meredith.

    Commenting on one of my posts someone [Gary] said, “The shame is ours — in a free society, we have the politicians we deserve.” I think his comment rings so true.

    Have a great day!


  23. Jordan Kimmel says


    I think it is interesting (and correct) that you did not list being smart in your list of attributes of a leader. Of course it is good to have above average intelligence, but that doesn’t make you a good leader. Give me someone of average intelligence with high levels of the other traits you mention- and you have someone I’d suggest to be put in a leadership role.


  24. Frank Sonnenberg says

    Thanks for your comment Jordan

    You make a very interesting point. Being smart doesn’t always make you a good leader. The true quality of a leader is inspiring others to live up to their potential. Plus, a great leader surrounds him/herself with people smarter than him/herself.

    Have a great day!


  25. lollydaskal says


    This is a very important post. One that should be read by organizations, foundations and businesses around the world..(even government)

    Frank I find you courageous. You shine the light on a very important problem which we see happening.

    If we think about it, authentic leaders are those who are vision casters. They establish the vision for the future and set the strategy for getting there; they cause change. They motivate and inspire others to go in the right direction and they, have conviction, humility, creditability and integrity.

    Just like you mentioned in your post.

    This is a very strong and powerful and worthy read. I am passing this onto my clients.

    Thank you for your brilliant and courageous blog post.

    Lolly Daskal
    Lead From Within

  26. Frank Sonnenberg says

    Thank you Lolly

    There is one item that I failed to include in this post . . .Counterfeit leaders talk about changing the world. Real leaders do it. Thank you so much for all the work that YOU are doing to make this a better place for our children.

  27. Sweetie says

    As we face needed changes in almost every facet of our systems of government, education and society, your words matter. Real leaders recognize that there is complexity in change, and that it is a process of progressive stretching, not only a forced troop movement. It is educating and affirming the reasons why the change is necessary. It is empowering the process of communication and hearing others while structuring the system to support what must be despite critical remarks and what appears to be a lack of financial support for the needed progress. Real leaders not only create change, they exemplify its power in their own work and example. Well done.

  28. Frank Sonnenberg says


    Thanks so much for your thoughts

    Words matter only when people like you help spread the word and when leaders, in all walks of life, follow words with action.

    Have a wonderful day!



  29. Jason Repovs says

    Wow, what an excellent article. Love the comparison between real and “counterfeit” leaders. A great reminder of what it means to be a leader, versus what it means to pretend to be.

  30. Frank Sonnenberg says


    Thanks so much for your kind words. Much appreciated.

    Have a wonderful day!



  31. Sister says

    This is really great! As a teacher, I read a Reader’s Digest story for children on sled dogs. When describing the lead dog, the author took occasion to dispel myths about leadership and explain what is essential to leadership: taking responsibility for the group. Your article simply expands this idea showing that leadership responsibility needs to be at the beginning, middle and fruition of action.

    Thank you!

  32. Frank Sonnenberg says

    Hi Sister

    I agree. I believe that “taking responsibility for the group” means more than merely hitting business goals. Leaders are also responsible for the way that business is conducted.

    Have a great day!



  33. AbdAllah says

    Thanks Frank for your encouraging article. I believe that credibility is the foundation of leadership & a real core value that every leader should possess.

    • Frank Sonnenberg says

      Hi AbdAllah

      You’re right about credibility. And, credibility is earned by having strong moral character. The truth is, leaders with character are highly effective. They have no need to pull rank or resort to command and control to get results. Instead, they’re effective because they’re knowledgeable, admired, trusted, and respected. This helps them secure buy-in automatically, without requiring egregious rules or strong oversight designed to force compliance.

      Have a wonderful day!



  34. thierry koehrlen says

    Great Article Frank!

    You can see someone’s character even more so when there is a “situation” to deal with.
    Since leaders have to deal with “situations” pretty often and you quickly see what kind of leaders (and people) they are.


    • says

      Hi Thierry

      I agree. We’re all confronted with situations each day. The way we address them speaks volumes about us. There is great truth in the saying, actions speak louder than words. Or as I say, “Do as I do, not as I say.”



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