Bogus Leadership: 
Where Are the New Leaders and How Do We Know Them? 

by John Renesch

Since 9/11, there have been huge lapses in leadership from every segment of our society. Political, corporate, religious, and institutional leaders have either betrayed our trust by doing something unethical or self-serving or they’ve failed to do anything positive by their inaction, allowing unwanted conditions to persist or even deteriorate instead of improving like we expected them to do. While these failures to effectively lead our institutions say something for the quality of the people rising to these positions of power and influence, they may say even more about those of us who give our legitimacy to their positions through our acceptance, trust, and belief that they are competent and trustworthy. Are we getting what we deserve?

Ever since I started publishing The New Leaders newsletter in 1990, I have studied, written about, and given speeches on the subject of leadership -- not the form of it but the essence of it. I have been incredibly curious about what makes real leaders -- leaders who are a fit for the times we live in. How do we distinguish between the “bogus leaders” and the ones who are authentic? How do we tell the difference between the “genuine articles” who we can trust and the “knock offs” who inevitably disappoint us and frequently damage our organizations and societies due to the limits of their competence and consciousness? How do we know which leaders are worthy of our trust and reliance and which ones will let us down when the going gets rough?

Thanks to the work of visionary academic Warren Bennis and management elder Peter Drucker, I was able to start seeing some of these distinctions. I saw how management is more like science and leadership is more like art. Good management is based on good mechanics -- like procedures, technique, models, and policies. Good leadership requires more creativity, articulating and bringing forth a vision. It calls for solid intuition, instinct, and a good “feel” for what is needed. 

When I compiled the first edition of Leadership in a New Era -- a collection of original writings by experts in enlightened leadership practices -- I was privileged to work with Bennis and some of the other pioneers in the field: Max DePree, then chairman of Herman Miller, Inc., who also wrote Leadership Is an Art and subsequent books while running a company; Jim Autry, another man who pushed new thinking about leadership while running a corporation, writing Love and Profit and other books, including his poetry; Margaret Wheatley added still another dimension to this emerging quality of leadership being called for in her book Leadership and the New Science; and modern mystic Robert Rabbin added to this growing appreciation for the new kind of leader with his book Invisible Leadership.

The form of leadership that comes from outside of oneself -- whether the role is one which has been earned, appointed, or stolen -- is completely different from the quality of leadership that originates inside the individual. For years I called this inner-directed, authentic quality “new leadership” -- leadership that arises from whomever sees the need to lead at any time, regardless of their official position. This doesn’t suggest random anarchy but does allow for individual responsibility -- moment to moment. Nowadays, I’m calling it “conscious leadership” because it originates in a consciousness that isn’t concerned with conforming to some model, code, or other external form. This consciousness is grounded in the “energy field” (like a magnetic field) of everyone involved -- the group consciousness -- whether that consciousness includes people in a company, a university, citizens of a nation-state, or the population of the world. The conscious leader simply knows what is right, and what is wrong, what is the proper thing to do and who to ask if they don’t know, and who to trust and . . . well, you get the picture. Their “knowing” comes from that place inside them that some refer to as our moral compass, or others call our “chi” or power center -- what I call one’s soul. 

“Bogus leadership” is the result of following some sort of blueprint or script like breadcrumbs leading to the king’s throne. When someone is elected to lead, or “earns” their position after following certain routines without making any serious mistakes, all that can be counted on is that they have a talent for following crumbs or avoiding difficult situations. 

Let me be clear that while the term “bogus” may catch your attention as a clever title, I do not mean to imply that bogus leaders intend to deceive or have bad intentions. They are usually doing the very best they can within the limitations of their thinking and their conditioning. They might be doing the very best they can with what they know and who they think they are. But much of the crisis in leadership we are experiencing in the world today is the result of UNCONSCIOUS behavior -- acts and attitudes that have been rooted in familiarity, insecurity, fear, immaturity, mimicry, disappointment, hurt, and many other factors that cause people to create public personas and images.

Managers who are asked to step into leadership roles often apply to their new responsibility the techniques and procedures they learned as managers. After all, this is what they know! It is familiar to them. The result could be compared to asking a sign painter to create a great landscape or still life masterpiece. Sometimes, by adapting their old skill sets to their new roles, these managers-turned-leaders unconsciously operate from structure or form rather than from who they are. This is like asking the expert auto mechanic to design a new car. Adapting familiar management skills can lead one into the trap of becoming a bogus leader. Those who inherit their positions through nepotism or planned succession can also fall into this trap. 

Conscious leadership is an art. Unlike the managerial tools of policy, procedures, techniques, and systems, it comes directly from one’s sense of Self.

Bogus leadership is imaged-based, so the trappings of an individual make it appear that a person is a bona fide leader. Like an actor on a stage, they fit the part we have in mind for them. They look the part, talk like we’d expect them to, and carry themselves with an air of confidence. Their picture would look good framed and mounted. But when one engages the world from image, regardless of how close that image might be to the real thing, the world gets the menu, not the meal. Followers of these bogus leaders get the videotape, not the real thing. 

Bogus leaders can possess an air of confidence that can be misleading. They can be confident of their performance -- as an actor who knows the part he or she is playing. They can feel assured that they know their lines and that they have all the moves right. They’ve rehearsed and been coached so they possess a confidence in how they will perform. But they are only performing a role -- like an actor. 

This is very different from the conscious leader who is confident in who he or she is, who possesses true SELF-confidence. They have a confidence in who they are as people, which is accompanied by an abiding trust that they’re up for whatever situations come their way. They won’t ever panic because they forgot their “lines” since they aren’t citing dialogue from a screenplay.

Bogus leaders need to consult with their image before taking action. They need to check regulations, codes of ethics, advisors, polls, and focus groups. Bogus leaders’ first loyalty is to their image. Sometimes people confuse their image or persona with who they really are. They lose touch with their real selves and start thinking that they are their image -- they start thinking that they are the sandwich pictured in the menu, not the sandwich. When people confuse their image with who they are, their image must be preserved by all means available. It is a matter of their survival. Then, after they are assured that their image will not be threatened in any way, they can take any of the remaining options. However, some of their options have been removed in order to protect their image, so there are fewer of them now. 

Bogus leaders will, therefore, take longer to act and respond because they have all these checks to process before they make any choices, plus they have fewer options available to them since some were eliminated to protect their image. And, often, some of the options that they eliminated would be the best ones for the circumstances.

Conscious leaders feel no need to check with external form or protect any images before they act. Their only loyalty is to the proper course of action in front of them. They will certainly seek advice so they have all the facts they need but their choices need not pass through the filters of image maintenance. They know themselves well enough and feel sufficient confidence in themselves that there’s no automatic image-check they have to go through. They don’t follow any playbook or need to bone up on “how to be a leader” courses.

People will observe these people in action and think they are “naturally born leaders” since their abilities and choices are so innately appropriate. They possess true power and do not rely on force to get what they need. They have dominion over their situations and feel no need to dominate anyone. They inspire rather than intimidate people. They have mastery over their situations without having to manipulate people or the circumstances.

The bogus leader eventually gets to a place where he or she is in over their head, no longer able to lean on their image and get away with it. In the early 1970s, The Peter Principle postulated that people eventually reach a place in their careers where they are no longer competent. My contention with Dr. Laurence Peter was that his theory only applied to people who had stopped growing and became entrenched in protecting their position or their image -- a situation that persists in any bureaucracy. Bogus leaders eventually run out of script. But conscious leaders are always growing and learning so there are no real limits except for self-imposed ones.

Today’s true leaders are the people who inspire us and possess dominion over their craft. These are the people who come across as real and human. They possess a magic that doesn’t rely on charisma alone but seems grounded in absolute grace. These are the people who shine in times of difficulty. 

Here are a few distinctions between bogus and conscious leadership:
Bogus Leadership Conscious Leadership
Follows a script
Tends to lead forcefully
Dominates people and situations
Protects his/her image
Relies on form
Becomes incompetent eventually
More adolescent
Strong persona, public image
Confidence in their roles as actors
 Follows one’s intuition
Leads with true power
Has dominion
Serves those who trust in him/her
Has mastery
Relies on Self
Continues to grow and learn
Wise adult
Mostly authentic and genuine
Confidence in them Selves
But let’s get back to my earlier question. Why do we tolerate, condone, and even empower bogus leaders? Why do we allow these people to gain positions of influence over us? Why do we continue to give them legitimacy even when their incompetence is obvious? Are we so image-conscious ourselves that we can’t tell the difference between the menu and the meal? Can’t we tell the difference between an actor and a real leader, even if the actor is very good at his or her craft? Are we so lazy that we allow anyone who sounds good and looks the part to speak for us and make decisions that affect us all? Are we so unconscious that we can’t tell a phony from an authentic leader? Or, are we so apathetic that we simply don’t give a shit? 

Have we abdicated all of our responsibility in the direction our society is headed? Have we abandoned our own humanity by turning our backs on meaning and purpose in our lives, becoming gradually desensitized to mediocrity, dysfunction, addictions of all sorts, lack of leisure, and growing incivility?

Because we do tolerate, condone, and even empower bogus leaders, we deserve what we get -- mediocre government, degenerating values, unethical and greedy corporate leaders, hypocritical priests, dysfunctional organizations, bureaucratic gridlock, and spiritual bankruptcy. We add legitimacy to their reigns by our mostly passive tolerance and failure to eject them from their positions of power and influence over us.

If we are to recover from this epidemic of bogus leadership -- and regain some authenticity and competency -- we need to take some responsibility for who we allow to lead us. We need to find that consciousness which resides within us all and take charge of our future -- to resurrect our humanness and rediscover our souls so we regain trust in the people who lead us.

We need to be more discerning about who leads us -- whether it is in companies, our government, or educational institutions and anyone else who we delegate authority to. Our leaders have been given our trust -- one of the most priceless gifts we can bestow on another human being. When you are trusted, you have a sacred responsibility -- a covenant to represent those people you are serving. The more people counting on you, the more people entrusting their futures to you, the more responsibility you have to honor that trust and serve whatever constituency you represent. 

Is there hope for any of our existing leaders or do they all need to be replaced? What options do bogus leaders have once they realize they are over their heads -- where they have turned the page and there’s no script anymore? After the initial panic subsides they can do one of three things: 1. try faking it -- which is a sure-fire formula for disaster but a continuation of the same ruse; 2. abdicate or resign their position -- leaving the role for someone who can deal with the situation; or 3. become real in a hurry. Getting real with oneself is the ultimate act of unselfishness. It is in the best interests of those being served by the leader. When one knows oneself at a core level -- and abandons their reliance on their image -- they find levels of self-confidence and self-trust that they feared were absent. Bogus leaders spend so many years relying on their scripts to get through life that they don’t realize that beneath all that persona is a really powerful (not forceful), inspiring (not intimidating), master (not a manipulator) who is competent beyond their imagination. 

Bogus leaders can become more conscious by dumping their image, tearing up their scripts and getting real with who they really are and who they are serving. 

© 2002 John Renesch

John Renesch is a San Francisco-based business futurist and a global expert on conscious leadership. He is the author of Getting to the Better Future and creator of numerous anthologies, including Leadership in a New Era, recently published in paperback by Paraview Special Editions. More about him can be seen at

Featured Books:
Leadership Is an Art by Max DePree 
Love and Profit by James Autry
Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley 
Invisible Leadership by Robert Rabbin 
The Peter Principle by Dr. Laurence Peter 

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