November 21, 2018

How to Avoid Parlor Trick Leadership

Photo by Willow&Monk

Some leaders employ various parlor tricks to appear caring, confident, inspiring and in touch. Initially, these tricks work but over time, supporters catch on and slowly separate from the cause or project.

Preventing this exodus takes a leader that is authentic in their feelings, actions and words. Being authentic requires confidence in ones abilities and the realization that short cuts, empty promises and unlikely statements need to be avoided.

It’s so much easier to throw out an inspirational quote, a canned statement or a “dog and pony” show than it is to truly inspire people.. Occasionally these tricks get the job done but they are only a short term fix.

Take a look at some of the most common tricks below to understand why they are over used and how to craft more believable statements and actions.

Trick #1: We are All in This Together

Really. “All” of us are in this together. Come on. I doubt that the CEO or executive management is really in the trench with the troops.

This is such an old and tired trick that every time I hear it, it makes me cringe. If the boss or leader really felt this, then they would step out of their office, come down into the lab or factory floor and interact with their people.

If you really mean this, then you need to show it. Some ways to show this include:


  • Take action: Do something that shows you are all in this together. Get on the production line. Debug code or just go get everyone dinner.

  • Show up: Having the team work the weekend or late at night, make sure to show up as well. It says a tremendous amount that the leader works late or on the weekend as well.

  • Take on a burden: There is always something that the leader can do to help the team. It might be as simple as cleaning up the office, getting dinner, writing the report or coordinating shipments. By taking on a burden, you demonstrate your commitment.

  • Reward sacrifice and dedication: No sacrifice or dedication should go unnoticed. Even simple things like a thank you, a phone call or a surprise treat makes a world of difference.


Trick #2: This is the Best Team I Have Ever Led

This is another one that is kinda hard to say and even harder to believe.

All teams have strengths and weaknesses. At the moment, the statement might be true but to say that throughout all of time, this team is the best, is a little short-sided.

The better way to approach this is to describe why the team is great and that it’s the best team I have led so far. This statement is a lot more believable and probably true.

The most common use of this trick to instill pride in the team and motivate them to do impossible things. The complex part about saying such statements is that it restricts you and your team by offering no room for improvement.

Trick #3: I Feel Your Pain

This statement is overused a tremendous amount — usually by leaders who are out of touch. A leader really does not need to say such a statement if they truly feel your pain — it will evident in the leaders actions.

A better approach would be to empathize with the situation by recounting events that demonstrate you understand the hardships. Nothing will win respect more than telling a story about how a similar situation felt and what you did about it.

Trick #4: We Work Hard and Play Hard

You hear this a lot at high tech companies where the pace of competition is so great that you have to ship products quickly. The statement is usually false because the Play Hard side is always sacrificed for the Doing More Work side.

A better way to approach this is to be honest about the pace of the group and why celebrations are an important part of the culture. That way, it’s a direct relationship.

Even if you do work hard and play hard, the term is overused and abused so much that it can immediately turn people off. Try and think of a new twist that gives the phrase new meaning. A couple that come to mind include:


  • We celebrate every great success and catastrophic failure

  • Every month we all go out to dinner

  • Friday’s are dress like the boss day

  • Whoever does the best during the week get’s their pick of Friday lunch spots


Trick #5: We Must Meet These Milestones

Milestones are always tricky business. Most of the time, they are artificial. When the leader pronounces that certain events must take place at certain times, they are opening themselves up for rebellion.

Hitting milestones is important but the reasons behind hitting the milestones are even more important. Rarely must a milestone be absolutely hit dead on unless it’s a matter of life and death or running out of money.

To make this more effective, the leader should always explain why the milestones need to be hit and the consequences if the goals are not acheived. If the reasons are purely ego driven, then your supporters will rarely rise to the occasion.

If you make the reasons resonate with the people, then it’s more likely to get done. Don’t skimp on the reasoning or rational. Every single one of your supporters has a reason they support you and all of them want to know why the milestones are important.

Trick #6: This is a Team Effort

Team dynamics and unity are important aspects to focus on. If you have a team that’s really not functioning as a team, then no amount of you saying we are a team will make them act like a team.

This trick is typically deployed when contributions within a team are lopsided or when tensions are high between team members. Team dysfunction is usually directly attributed to the poor leadership of the team leader. The reason for this is simple — the leader does not fully utilize the members of the team.

In most cases, all members of a team want to contribute. If the contributions are lopsided it’s usually because the leader has been ineffective with roles and responsibilities. Remedy that problem and the effort will truly be a team one.

Trick #7: We Are Moving to Fast to Get Consensus

There is never a time when you cannot build consensus about a course of action or decision. It’s just a lazy way for a team leader to avoid having anyone debate their decisions.

Supporters will only put up with this for so long especially if the effort or group is always moving to fast to care about consensus.

A better way to deal with this is to foster a constant consensus culture that can quickly discusses, assess and decides on directions. That way, everyone on the team feels they are part of the solution rather than a pair of hands to do the work.

It’s About Being Authentic

The key to avoiding parlor trick leadership is to take action. Consistent action reinforced by words will have better outcomes than non-action with empty promises. The tricks above may give you some sort term successes but over time, people will figure it out and your ability to lead will degrade.

Remember that authenticity requires taking action and setting the example on how you want others to act. No parlor tricks can make up for that.