FAKE IT ‘TIL YOU MAKE IT is a common refrain in our culture. But it has been wrongfully used to justify all kinds of poor behavior and outright lies, as Sabrina Horn correctly points out in Make It, Don’t Fake It.
Of all the business and career memes to gain popularity, few have compromised integrity in business, leadership, and personal success more than the expression “Fake it till you make it.” With roots in well-intentioned early twentieth-century psychotherapy, this phase has degenerated into a mantra that has encouraged and even normalized lying for the purpose of getting ahead. Now a product of modern American culture that rolls all too easily off the tongue, its mere existence tells you it’s okay to lie, from twisting the truth just a little to flagrantly deceiving others for personal gain.
How true. We can’t be surprised by this in a culture that encourages selective truth, self-promotion, and short-cuts. While some use this maxim to fake a persona or misrepresent who they really are, it was never intended to be about lying. It is about becoming. It is a means to become something, not a state of being.
In the same way, some people embrace vulnerability to ignore their weaknesses. The vulnerability culture that has sprung up is often used to help us justify our weaknesses rather than facing the truth and doing something to grow them to a non-toxic level. If, in our self-awareness, we realize that our authentic self is getting in our way and undermining our leadership, it’s time we did something about it rather than closing our eyes and slapping an authenticity label on it.
Fake It ‘til You Make It is about acting “as if.” If you want more friends, it’s not about going around talking about all of the friends you have, but beginning to act in a way that invites friendships—like being friendly and smiling. Fake It ‘til You Make It is about taking on a mindset to produce results, not playing footloose with the facts, and lying about things that aren’t as though they were.
To counteract this cultural condition, Make It, Don’t Fake It is about “ethics, passion, confidence, pride, resilience, commitment, and survival in a business context. It is about doing the right things the right way. This almost always means doing them the hard way.”
Varying degrees of faking it falls along a continuum from acting “as if” to outright fraud. Horn discusses these various degrees of fakery—or call it what it is—deceit. In the heat of the moment, most of these fabrications are easy to fall into. It gets us by. But they take a toll not only on our character but also the enduring success that could be ours.
Horn then takes us through her journey as the CEO of a public relations and marketing communications agency. So, she knows what is fake and what isn’t and the consequences of each. We often if PR and spin as one and the same, but done right says Horn, it isn’t. I like her perspective on it:
There is a big difference in intent between misleading people by making something look better than it really is and simply bringing life to what is most compelling about it for the purpose of earning attention, interest, and trust.
In our drive to succeed, the temptation is always there to cut corners and misrepresent ourselves. Horn begins with her first pitch to her first prospective client.
I walked into PeopleSoft’s main conference room armed with a pack of business cards emblazoned with the initial name of my future company, Sabrina Horn Public Relations, and a logo the resembled a towel monogram. I had no employees, no clients, and except for the business cards, no evidence of a company, really.
For anyone that has started their own company, this is an easily relatable scenario. What do you do? Misrepresenting the truth comes to mind. Faking it.
Honestly, there were moments I was anxious enough to say to myself, Who am I kidding? This is nuts. They won’t take me seriously, so I had better make something up to sell them on me.
But she didn’t. She disarmed her fear with preparation.
When you are first starting out, doing and being anything to win the business is tempting—and also dangerous. You have to be bullish and yet stay grounded in the reality of what your company can realistically do, and then target those customers that want what you have to offer, with relatively few modifications.
Horn covers what it means to start a business, the emotional ups and downs, the temptations, the risk, controlling growth, and the importance of establishing your values from the beginning.
Throughout my career, whenever I was facing a crisis or felt rudderless, I attacked fear, uncertainty, and doubt and any stirrings of the imposter syndrome by referring to factual reality. I sought information to develop new strategies and options.
Like a detective, I just had to find it, or piece it together. I knew that the answer I needed and the decision I needed to make, as complex and hidden as they might be, were within reach. This self-knowledge saved me countless times over the years.
There is a way to do it right. At the core of everything you do is integrity. And that includes creating and staying an authentic brand. The brand is the responsibility of the company’s founders and represents the why or the reason for being. Horn devotes an excellent chapter to your brand and culture and the issues involved in protecting and evolving it in a changing marketplace.
She says leadership consists of two parts: winning and losing. While we like to focus on the wins, we will lose more often than we would like. No one is immune. And “it is really hard to act like a leader when you feel like a loser.”
Horn shares a significant failure and the necessary after-failure postmortem. The value of a postmortem “is that it makes you face reality and keeps you from laying the blame elsewhere. The truth is, while relationships and stunts do matter, intelligence, insights, creativity, passion, and sheer effort can matter more. You lost, not because of what they did but because of what you didn’t do.
There are situations where there’s just no winning. You can’t fake your age or your size or manufacture relationships you don’t have. Stay grounded, align around your core values and mission, and remind your team what you stand for. There is a reason why you and your people work at your company, and why other people don’t. Losing in these situations can be a blessing in disguise.
And then there’s winning. When you are on a winning streak, know that things can and will change. Begin to plan for what is next. And a crisis will inevitably come out of nowhere. Plan for it, too, before it happens.