You Won’t Make It If You Fake It

The cover of last January’s Harvard Business Review featured the subhead, “When it’s OK to fake it till you make it.”

“Faking it” is the antithesis of authentic leadership. Following this advice is the most likely path to failure as a leader. You cannot act like a leader until you go through the hard steps of developing yourself from within.

With the visible failures of leaders who tried to fake it, people have developed sensitive “sniff tests” and can quickly identify who is authentic and who is not. If you fake leadership, people will be unwilling to follow your lead and will resent your attempts to exert power over them.


Developing as a leader is hard work. It is similar to the rigorous training and required experience that surgeons, musicians, or athletes must go through before excelling in their fields. Can you imagine doing brain surgery without proper training? Or playing the cello at Carnegie Hall or tennis at Wimbledon without years of training and practice?

Just as you cannot learn these skills solely in the classroom, leaders must undertake rigorous personal development and have multiple leadership experiences before they are prepared for major leadership assignments. Through these processes, they learn about themselves and how to lead diverse people through complex challenges.

Look at the sad case of Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes. She is a talented person who rose to fame too quickly, until Theranos was challenged by a Wall Street Journal investigation. On the surface, Holmes’ story seemed to be the perfect narrative. The would-be Silicon Valley entrepreneur dropped out of Stanford at the age of 19 to found Theranos, a company attempting to replace blood-testing draws with single drops from the finger. Holmes’ rapid rise to fame put her on a fast track to success, with high expectations and intense pressures. Yet she hadn’t had adequate leadership experience attacking and leading people through difficult business problems.

Holmes created a $9 billion valuation on paper by selling venture capitalists on her idea and raising $400 million. She assembled a celebrity board, convinced Safeway to spend $350 million to build clinics in its supermarkets, and signed partnerships with Cleveland Clinic and Walgreens. She attracted celebrity media attention with headlines like “Queen Elizabeth: Mystique of Theranos Founder Grows.” She received prestigious accolades, being named Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship, youngest winner of the Horatio Alger Award, and one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People (2015).

Then it all came crashing down.

On October 16, The Wall Street Journal reported that the data Theranos submitted were insufficient to prove the accuracy of many of its tests. In spite of her seeking media visibility, Holmes did not offer comments for this article. Five days later, she said the company was in a “pause period.” Subsequently, Walgreens halted expansion of its Theranos blood-testing centers, and in early November, Safeway announced dissolution of its partnership.

A famous quote says: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Maybe the “fake it till you make it” leadership approach will work for a while, but it will eventually catch up with you.

Contrast the fake it approach with that of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, an open and transparent authentic leader whom I profile in Discover Your True North. Unlike the “rocket ship” career ladder Holmes pursued, Sandberg’s career path took on the shape of a “jungle gym” that she described in Lean In. “I could never have connected the dots from where I started to where I am today,” she wrote.

After graduating from Harvard Business School, Sandberg worked as a management consultant at McKinsey and for Treasury Secretary Larry Summers for six years before joining Google at 32. When she and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg began working together in 2007, Sandberg requested that Zuckerberg provide her with weekly feedback.

After the tragic death last spring of her husband Dave Goldberg, Sandberg shared a touching Facebook post, hoping her story would help others. She wrote, “I realized that to restore that closeness with my colleagues, I needed to let them in. That meant being more open and vulnerable than I ever wanted to be.”

It takes immense bravery to be so honest and open with the world, but realizing that others accept and love you for who you are liberates you as an authentic leader.

I strongly support young leaders like Larry Page and Zuckerberg who start their own businesses. You can get started with little management experience, but to sustain success, it is essential to surround yourself with more experienced leaders as Zuckerberg found with Sandberg. Google founders Page and Sergey Brin followed a similar course by recruiting Eric Schmidt as CEO. It is also important to seek out wise mentors, as Zuckerberg did with Washington Post CEO Donald Graham and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.

That’s what I learned to do as the 27-year-old general manager of Litton Industries’ microwave oven division. I recruited an experienced team of appliance industry veterans, including the marketing and sales head who was twice my age and earned twice my salary. Had I tried to fake my leadership and knowledge of the appliance industry, I surely would have failed.

In the research for Discover Your True North, we interviewed 170 leaders from 23 to 93 years old. Not one of them talked about faking it to get ahead. What stood out for every one of them was how hard they had worked to develop themselves, and the painful lessons they learned from their mistakes and failures. Through those very difficult experiences they developed the self-awareness, confidence, courage and resilience to persevere through the most difficult challenges, and imbue their colleagues with confidence in their leadership and ability to succeed.

In contrast, leaders who are faking it only fool themselves, as others see through them and are pained by their acting. Sometimes this approach impresses their bosses, which may be good for a promotion or two, but eventually falls apart when they are unable to win support from peers and subordinates.

All leaders are human, subject to frailties and mistakes, but inauthentic leaders lare often are afraid to face their failures and may try to hide them or blame others. Holmes appears to have talent, ambition, and intellect, but these qualities, unbalanced by authenticity, may have magnified her difficulties.

Authentic leaders are real and genuine. They acknowledge their shortcomings and admit their errors, which enables them to connect with others and inspire teammates. Their leadership is built on their character and values, as they embrace the vital experiences that shape them, and are comfortable in their skin.

That’s why Sheryl Sandberg has been so successful, a great partner for Mark Zuckerberg, and wise adviser to millions who have read Lean In. Leaders like Sandberg understand they won’t make it if they fake it, but they will succeed by being authentic.

Bill George is the author of Discover Your True North, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, and former chair and CEO of Medtronic.


This article was originally published on Harvard Working Knowledge 12/08/15.