A Foe of Faux

By Steve McKee

Spotting leadership “deepfakes”

A “deepfake” is a video, speech, soundbite or image that has the appearance of being real but isn’t. It’s one of the unfortunate byproducts of the increasing capabilities of artificial intelligence that we’re going to have to deal with.

But it doesn’t require artificial intelligence to generate deepfakes; natural (human) intelligence has been doing it for years. How else can we explain phony fun on Facebook, Photoshopped images on Instagram and keyboard courage on Twitter? Even flash mobs, as entertaining as they may be, are contrived.

There has always been a lot of “fake” in the “real” world, from fake eyelashes and fake tattoos to fake plants and fake diamonds. When my wife and I were newly married we filled our home with laminated furniture that used synthetic material to mimic the look of wood (with each nick we learned there’s a reason they call it “veneer”). But now anyone can install faux stone cladding on their fireplace or fake grass in their front yard.

It seems that today people value how something appears more than what it is. But that’s a dead end; tautological as it may be, things that aren’t lasting will not last. There’s reason medieval cathedrals still stand while mid-20th Century brutalist buildings crumble.

That’s a lesson aspiring leaders should take to heart. Yes, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but as lovely as that faux stone may look, when your houseguests realize it came not from a quarry but a factory, they’ll draw their own conclusions. Same with phony grass—the fact that it looks so out of place in December is because it is out of place in December. Whether people driving by your yard process the thought or not, they’ll be disconcerted by it.

The desire to lead is a powerful human motivation in part because of the respect we confer on leaders. But it’s one thing to have earned respect and another to create the appearance of it. We are all tempted to exaggerate our accomplishments and capabilities, and we can easily rationalize that we’re going to get away with it. But it’s not difficult to smell a disingenuous LinkedIn bio from a mile away (pro tip: using the term “personal brand” is a dead giveaway).

The stakes are even higher within our workplaces, where we can’t fool any of the people any of the time. One of the reasons demonstrating vulnerability can accrue to the benefit of leaders is that it reveals their human fallibility, something all but the most manipulative among us would never think to contrive. It feels real, and that feels good.

Over the course of a four-decade career in marketing, I’ve worked with my share of people who want others to think they know more than they do or have accomplished more than they have, taking credit for work with which they were merely involved. They may not outright say “I did that” when those who really produced the insight or idea were down the hall from them (or, ahem, at their ad agency), but they’re more than content to imply it.

My firm happily avoids these people by working with what we call “humbled owners”—those who have been chastened by some set of circumstances, know what they don’t know, and take ownership of their challenges. We’ve even designed our website to weed out the faux, and as a result, we don’t meet many prospects we would describe that way. When we do, it quickly becomes obvious that we’re not a match.

A shrinking world and expanding technology make it easier than ever to appear to be something you’re not or virtue signal to continually wider circles of influence. But real people can tell who really cares about real people, and while you may be able to fake it for those far away, you can’t with those close to home. And the closer they are, the more they matter.

It’s one thing to use a Zoom background that suggests you’re on a tropical island instead of in a windowless room, because everybody is in on the joke. But attempting to “deepfake” your own credentials, capabilities or accomplishments is likely to come back to bite you, whether you know it or not. Artificial intelligence may never fully grasp the danger of being disingenuous, but human intelligence always will.

Originally published on SmartBrief on Leadership

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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