ITB 2024 Special Reporting
The Impostor Leaders.
By Enda Larkin
Saturday, 9th January 2010
'My boss really hates me' - Those were his opening words and then, clearly unhappy, this likeable and competent if somewhat timid young manager proceeded to describe the catalogue of abuse he suffered every day from his boss.

It wasn't just the constant sarcasm and snide remarks. Nor was it the frequent personal attacks on him in front of others. It wasn't even the unnecessary denigration of his work just to show him who was in charge which got to him. No, he could struggle through all of that and the rest. It was, he said, the sense of helplessness which was hardest to take. That and the loss of self-esteem he was feeling because of his inability to stand up to his boss. 

Now, maybe your first reaction is that this guy should have been a bit more assertive and stood up for himself. And yes, he probably should have done so. You might also be thinking that he could have just jumped ship, but with small kids and a big mortgage his mobility was somewhat restricted. He might even have reported his boss; although ambition and the fear of being labelled a troublemaker meant that doing so would only ever be a last resort. In fact, it would be easy to blame him for his own circumstances.

And that is usually what happens because there is still a tendency to fault the victim, not the aggressor. Too often, the undertone of the message sent out to people like him is, ‘have you no backbone?' This completely and utterly misses the point and that sort of attitude only shifts the blame away from where it belongs. It is the failings of the leader which should warrant the attention, not the other way around.  

Working for a boss from hell can be soul destroying. They wreak havoc as they demoralise and dishearten, intimidate and insult or criticise and coerce. Left unchecked, they stifle rather than stimulate employee engagement causing untold, if at times hidden, damage to organizational and individual performance. Nobody deserves to suffer under a lousy leader, yet for many people it is a daily reality.  

Let's be very clear about something from the start. I am not, repeat not, talking here about managers who get it wrong occasionally, lose their cool every now and again, or lack some of the required qualities and skills to lead effectively. That is natural and indeed only human; nobody is perfect after all and everyone gets it wrong from time to time. What I am referring to though are those individuals who fail the leadership challenge, not just occasionally but continuously. I am talking about the Impostor Leaders.

Calling them Impostors might seem a bit on the dramatic side. But if you really think about it, that is precisely what they are. They are fakes, pure and simple; wolves in sheep's clothing, you might even say, so the label is actually very well suited. Sure, they may pose as authentic leaders, holding the right titles and saying all the right things, yet they are far from the real deal. In reality they are living a lie, often without even realising it, because the way they think and act much of the time is the antithesis of genuine leadership.

Not all Impostors harm to the same degree of course. Some merely frustrate by their incompetence or negativity, whereas others inflict real and prolonged pain on those who report to them. Regardless of their severity, what distinguishes an Impostor Leader is that their poor performance is unremitting, not intermittent. For them, getting it wrong is the rule, not the exception.

The Good, the bad and the downright nasty 

It goes without saying that there are many great leaders to be found at all levels throughout the hospitality industry. But, let's be honest with ourselves too, there are a lot of Impostor Leaders hanging around in hotels and restaurants. Who are they anyway and what do they do that is so wrong?

Separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the leaders in our industry is no easy task as clearly none of them get it all right, or indeed all wrong; every leader's performance is subject to peaks and troughs of some kind. But when judged over the long term, certain leaders do continually outperform others, and at times, by a significant margin.

Truly effective leaders are those who make a positive and lasting impact on business life; they are manaleaders, so to speak, because they can balance the management and leadership roles. They are so, because more times than not, they can find the right mix between three important dimensions of work – People, Process and Performance. The best leaders continually do two things well:

Sticking with this engage to achieve concept, I have seen over the years how it is possible to distinguish true leaders from Impostors based on how well they cope with this interrelationship and have defined eight leader types into a new framework which I call The Leadership Wheel.

The Wheel, shown below, identifies four broad categories of leaders according to their ability to intertwine the leadership (engage) and management (achieve) roles.  I do not intend The Wheel to be viewed as a personality profile of leaders, but it does describe the general types commonly found, based on how they consistently perform and behave over the long term.

Where a leader sits on the Wheel most of the time results from their capacity to engage or alienate their people plotted against their propensity to achieve or underachieve when it comes to results. The center of the Wheel shows the four categories of leaders:
  • Genuine Leaders
  • Nearly Leaders
  • Deflating Impostors
  • Toxic Impostors
The Wheel highlights that there are two groupings of what are deemed positive leaders – Genuine and Nearly – with two classes of Impostors – Deflating and Toxic – those who underperform with regard to engaging employees, achieving results or indeed both. The inner ring of the wheel shows the most common type of leader found in each category whilst the outer ring shows the minority, which, in the case of the Genuine Leaders, means that Nurturers are the most prevalent whereas Stars are less often seen.

The Impostors Leaders do not necessarily ‘fail' as such, for outright failure would not be tolerated for very long in any hotel today. What they do though is consistently underperform in different ways and for different reasons. They are designated Impostors not because of infrequent lapses; instead, they are repeat offenders and frequently display negative behaviors which cause them problems. More of the time than not, they are stuck in Impostor mode.

The Leadership Wheel - © Enda Larkin
The Wheel shows four general types of leaders found in any industry, based on how they consistently perform over the long term. Where a leader sits on the Wheel results from their capacity to engage or alienate their people plotted against their propensity to achieve or underachieve when it comes to results. The center of the Wheel shows the four categories of leaders:

Genuine Leaders

In my experience Genuine Leaders are those who possess the required talents to lead effectively. Far from perfect or infallible by any means, these leaders do however make a concerted effort to apply positive leadership approaches based on the notion that employees are partners, not followers. What impresses me about the Genuine Leaders I have met is that they consistently get the leadership-management balance right by focusing on the needs of their employees without taking their eyes off organizational goals; they are relationship orientated, but results driven. Generally, I have come across two types of leaders within this category over the years:


On first hearing this description, you would be forgiven for thinking that I am promoting these leaders are some sort of ‘mother-hens', but that is not the case at all. Yes, Nurturers are balanced and team oriented individuals who show real concern for the well-being of their employees; they truly value their people. But when you interact with them, you also quickly notice that they are very determined to achieve high quality results and are never prepared to accept second best or shoddy performance. So, they do like to help their people grow and develop, but they also expect a lot in return.


Stars are always in the minority within organisations for they are the truly exceptional leaders. Stars have the same desire to engage with their teams as Nurturers do, but what sets them apart is that they also possess a strongly inspirational quality about them; they are those special few individuals who have a natural gift of being able to really lift others.

Nearly Leaders

Nearly Leaders are generally individuals who are doing their best to apply effective leadership approaches; they should, at the very least, be credited for that. I have found that, like the Genuine Leaders, they believe in engaging their employees and tend to succeed in that regard, albeit this can be short-lived sometimes. Unfortunately, due to a number of important failings, these leaders underachieve in terms of the results they deliver for the organisation. Again, I have seen two types of Nearly Leaders over the years:


Befrienders make the mistake in believing that if they ‘get on well' with their employees then they will respond to this and that the work will be done to the standard required. Whilst this might seem like an approach that should work, it doesn't in many cases because these leaders over rely on the bonds they have with their employees as their source of power and authority.

False Prophets

False Prophets have similar personality traits to Stars in the sense that they too are usually charismatic figures who have high energy levels and a natural enthusiasm for life; they are also extroverts who are energised by being around other people. False Prophets love the idea of a challenge and are good at getting people to buy into change and new ideas.

Unfortunately, unlike Stars, they cannot sustain those high levels of engagement with their teams because they suffer from the major shortcoming of lacking follow through, which reduces their ability to actually get things done. These leaders may be great at raising expectations but are not so good at delivering results consistently over the long term.

Deflating Impostors

These guys are not all bad of course and generally they are not completely malicious characters. But their behaviors, intentionally and otherwise, tend to sap the enthusiasm and passion out of employees over time. Ultimately, they are not so good for people, process, or performance because they create a highly controlled, or at times stifling, working environment which increasingly alienates some or all of those who work for them.

This in turn means they have a greater propensity to underachieve in terms of the results they generate. Again you will frequently see two types of these leaders:

Damp Squibs

Damp Squibs are insecure and passive individuals who lack the self-assurance to fully empower their employees. Instead of creating a working environment founded upon autonomy and empowerment, they tend to over rely on direction and control. These Impostors, I have noticed, have a propensity to micro-manage their people to such an extent that they eventually become frustrated with the lack of freedom. They are the type of leaders who will who will ‘delegate' a task to an employee but will then essentially stand over their shoulder while they do it, driving them around the twist with their finicky behaviour.

Dark Clouds

In my experience, these Impostors are predominantly unhappy characters who are dissatisfied with where their life is going, or indeed has ended up. They secretly harbour dreams of doing something completely different, or for the lazy ones, nothing at all. Unfortunately, their lack of drive and obsessive fear of risk prevents them acting on their desires; although, to listen to them the fault for their personal circumstances usually lies elsewhere.

As a result they are often glum and moody and are frequently the cynics in the organisation who have a tendency to wallow in self-pity. You rarely find these characters surviving in the Private sector, but have a look in the Public Sector and you will find a fair few of them.

Toxic Impostors

These leaders are a dangerous bunch. They can, and do, achieve positive results within the business but it is in how they do so that creates the problems. Toxic Impostors not only alienate their people but can inflict a fair degree of pain on some of them too, emotionally speaking of course. The Toxic Impostors that I have met broadly fall into two types:


Egotists believe themselves to be charismatic individuals but that's because they have usually mistaken charisma for arrogance; they use their misguided self-image and forceful natures as weapons to control those around them. Totally self-centred individuals, they may well be intelligent but are never as bright as they like to think they are.

Egotists are also strongly opinionated and will speak frequently and forcefully regardless of whether they actually have something of value to contribute. In fact, that's often a secondary concern to them as being heard is generally more important than being right. There is no other opinion in the room of equivalent status as theirs, except that is, when the boss is around when they can turn into downright sycophants.


Bullies are the worst of the Impostor Leaders. They can be bitter, angry and even unstable characters who dominate others through their threatening and intimating behaviours. Often mildly, if not severely paranoid, Bullies are overtly aggressive individuals who view work life as a constant battle, one which must be won at all costs. They seem to enjoy inflicting pain on others and sometimes it appears that they build themselves up by having someone else to knock down.

The goal of any business in the hospitality industry should of course be to seek to maximise the number of Genuine Leaders and weed out the Impostors over time. Sadly, this doesn't happen to the extent it should particularly in small and medium enterprises.

The damage done by the Impostors is often overlooked but they are far from inconsequential when you factor in the cumulative expense of reduced engagement, lost productivity, higher employee turnover (particularly the talented ones), increased recruitment costs and so on.

If only more owners and managers would go to the bother of trying to assess the damage.

This article is an extract from Enda Larkin's forthcoming book, entitled The Impostor Leaders, to be published later in 2010.

About the Author

Enda Larkin has over 25 years experience in the hotel industry having held a number of senior management positions in Ireland, UK and the US.

In 1994 he founded HTC Consulting, a Geneva based firm, which specialises in working with enterprises in hospitality and tourism. Since that time, he has led numerous consulting projects for public and private sector clients throughout Europe and the Middle East.

He is author of Ready to Lead? (Pearson/Prentice Hall) and How to Run a Great Hotel (How to Books) which expands on the themes highlighted in this article. He may be contacted via www.htc-consult.com or at
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