The False Flag

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I love sailing novels, especially those based on British Naval history and tradition. I’m fascinated by these tall ships and the seamanship required to operate them – especially without engines. I can fire up my diesel in a pinch, but back then they didn’t have that option.

Several series I’ve really enjoyed include: Dewey Lambdin’s, featuring his character Alan Lewrie; and C. S. Forester’s, featuring his character Horatio Hornblower. Both series are set during the American and French revolutionary periods and Napoleanic wars.

A common tactic back then was to hoist a “False Flag” to disguise your country of origin. This created the potential – while your ruse was yet undetected – to gain an advantage for the initial broadside. This was considered acceptable during naval warfare, provided the attacking vessel displayed its true flag once battle was enjoined.

As leaders, false flags are a serious problem.

In my naval example, the false flag was raised intentionally. When leaders do this, it falls into the category of the “hidden” or “facade” quadrant of the Johari window. We’ll discuss that in a future post.

(NOTE: for background on Johari, see my “Window to the Soul” link below).

Leaders can also hoist false flags unintentionally. This is a specific type of “Blind Spot” in the Johari framework, and one that plagued me for years. Here’s how…

Early in my career I was mentored by several prominent leaders. They had an amazing impact on my life and leadership skills.

These individuals were “larger than life.” I assumed to reach my maximum potential I had to become like them. I emulated their personalities instead of fully developing my own. I just thought that’s how good leaders were.

But, it resulted in me presenting myself as I thought a leader should be seen, versus who I really was. And that’s the false flag.

False flags undermine our leadership in six specific ways:

  1. They create internal stress. Not being yourself causes internal dissonance. Like an off key band. We cringe when the band plays. We’re stressed when we’re not ourselves. The level of stress just depends on the person. For me, it caused some serious health issues.
  2. They create unrealistic expectations. People expect you to be who you present yourself to be. Over time – both personally and professionally – they rely on it. Striving to fulfill these expectations often leads people to accept roles they are not well suited for, which rarely ends well.
  3. They create pressure to take shortcuts. The pressure of unrealistic expectations tempts many to cut corners. The ends can become more important than the means, undercutting our integrity. This is a leadership death trap.
  4. They create unintended consequences. Not being yourself inevitably causes harm to those closest to you, including family, friends and co-workers. The organization(s) that you serve also suffer.
  5. They reduce your effectiveness. Part of your energy is consumed fulfilling the expectations your image has created. This is distracting and reduces your productivity.
  6. They rob others of your true value. This is the core issue. Items 1 through 5 are non-starters if you are being yourself and embracing your unique design.

All blind spots, not just false flags, undermine our leadership.

Is it time for a checkup? Considering asking a trusted friend for feeback. You might be glad you did.

I always hoist my true flag these days, emblazoned with my unique design. I’m actually quite fond of it. And I believe those I’m privileged to lead are, as well.

P. S. — This week’s photo is one I took of The Californian, which operates out of San Diego Bay. It is a great example of a tall ship, and a replica of the first US Revenue Cutter Lawrence, commissioned in 1849. The button below links to their web site if you’d like to find out more.

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