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Real leaders never fake it

Being is CEO is much more than taking on the title. Learn more from a CEO who's been through it.

4 min read


Real leaders never fake it


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Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Sabrina Horn.

When I was 29 years old, and with little-to-no management experience, I founded a Silicon Valley public relations firm specializing in the B2B tech sector. 

About one year into the business, we reached an inflection point. Our clients wanted to work with a firm that could scale with them, furnish more senior talent, and offer specialized services. They wanted a real industry player. For me, this kind of growth meant that I had to step up my own game as a leader. I needed to make the move from “owner” to a real CEO. This, to me, was at once exciting, overwhelming and daunting.

When you start up, “fake it till you make it” is a real temptation. The way to succeed, says the conventional wisdom, is to assume a capability you don’t have. I can tell you that’s dead wrong. Faking it isn’t just risky. Eventually you’ll get found out, and you’ll face bigger problems. More important, it’s self-defeating. As a CEO, the fewer minutes you squander on any kind of fakery, the better. Real CEOs think strategically and long term. They commit to reality.

Here’s what that involves:

Role and responsibility

Be sure you want to be a CEO. Truly understand what the job requires. Just because you started or own a company, no law requires you to add the initials CEO after your name. Chief technology officer may be more your style, or head of business development or something else. If so, go hire yourself a CEO.

Establish values

CEOs have the rich opportunity and the heavy responsibility to articulate the values of their company. Far from being an ethical frill, values are (by some estimates) the source of half the reputation of a company. Values can determine 44% of its market value. They drive your firm’s culture, processes, and how your people perform and communicate. Fixing a dysfunctional culture is much harder than creating the right culture in the first place. Values will keep you off the “shortcuts” that sabotage strategic success.

Weave a safety net

There’s a good reason why people say, “It’s lonely at the top.” As a CEO, employees may isolate themselves from you. You must often make tough decisions, each one a lonely act. The constant pressure of the job can cause anxiety, even depression. Beyond your leadership team and Board, build an informal personal safety net of mentors. You want a trusty band who will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. Further fight isolation by acquiring a bias for connection, and consider joining peer-level groups in your industry or through other organizations.

Beware the leader’s curse

CEOs have a special bond with the company they steward, especially if they are also founders. A blessing, this bond can also be a curse, reflexively blinding you to potential flaws in your product or the holes in your strategy. Stay grounded in reality by making a commitment to keeping an open mind, to being humble, and to surrounding yourself with those who will always, always give it to you straight.

Disarm fear, organize risk

In any venture, risk is inevitable. But fear of risk can be paralyzing. As you balance reward against risk, disarm the fear by answering: What’s the worst that could happen? Then develop plans to handle the worst, so that you can rationally plan to achieve the best. Then answer: What does success look like? 

Nothing disarms fear and organizes risk like reality-based optimism. Avoid imposter syndrome by periodically reviewing your real accomplishments. Visualize the very scenarios you most fear and imagine how you want to see them playing out. And lastly, defeat uncertainty and doubt with data and knowledge. 

With some of these arrows in their quiver, real leaders can stay grounded in reality, avoid the temptations to fake it, and instead make it with authenticity for long-term success.


Sabrina Horn is an award-winning CEO, C-suite advisor, communications expert, and author. She founded Horn Group (acquired by Finn Partners), a national public relations firm that for a quarter century, advised thousands of tech executives and their companies.  Her new book, “Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success” (foreword by Geoffrey Moore), publishes June 2021.

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