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November 25, 2021

You'll Never Make It If You Fake It: My Expert Interview With Sabrina Horn

Rachel Salaman


When I was at college, I'd spend my summers doing temporary secretarial work. Frequently, my agency or the client would ask if I knew a particular piece of software, and I always said yes – whether or not I really did.

This was a safe white lie because I knew I'd be able to "fake it until I made it." Most office apps worked the same way, and a few minutes of exploration was all I ever needed to become proficient. If I'd been honest and said no, well, they'd have quickly moved on to the next temp.

This kind of fakery lies at the benign end of author Sabrina Horn's "Fake-o-Meter" – a sliding scale that goes from "acting as if" at one end, to full-scale criminal fraud at the other.

The Problem With "Faking It"

In her book, "Make It, Don't Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success," Sabrina Horn makes the case for ditching dissembling of all kinds, especially when it does harm.

In our Expert Interview podcast, I asked Sabrina to describe her Fake-o-Meter with examples. Here's what she said.

As the founder and CEO of her own successful PR company, Horn was well-positioned to observe other people's behavior. She was disturbed to notice that faking had been normalized, helped along by the popularization of the catchy motto "fake it till you make it."

This worried her enough to write this book, as a rallying cry for integrity – in every sphere and at all levels of an organization.

The Foundation of Integrity

"Integrity is not optional for some people and a requirement for others," she states. "Whether you're a mom, a homemaker or a postal worker or a CEO or the receptionist, you can't build anything sustainable without a foundation of integrity or honesty."

That said, integrity is especially important when you hold a position of power.

"As a leader, by definition, you lead by example and, therefore, you're much more under a microscope. So, if I'm exaggerating the truth and faking it in front of my employees, I'm giving permission for them to do the same thing," Horn says.

This reminds me of when I worked for a multimedia production company in New York. It was a classic dot-com start-up, flush with venture capital. We had nice offices and lots of employees – and zero clients.

The founder and CEO was a charismatic young woman who could charm the birds from the trees. She convinced investors that her main product – cross-cultural training videos – was a sure bet. The market was crying out for them, she told potential financiers. She was in the process of expanding the sales team to cope with demand. A major airline was one big hitter about to sign up.

Except it wasn't. And the "sales team" was only ever just one person.

When Faking It Fails

This woman truly believed in this approach, and to be fair, it got her quite far, for a number of years. But looking back, with Sabrina Horn's observations ringing in my ears, I can see that this fakery pervaded the entire organization, hastening its downfall. We knew we were being powered by hot air, and integrity began to slip.

I was friends with the sales guy, and I remember him laughing about how little work he did – how he made things up during the few sales calls he made, and how sales "meetings" were actually shopping trips.

Three years and three million dollars later, the company was no more. The faking had been impressive, but it didn't build the business. It killed it.

Analyze Your Fakery

Sabrina Horn advises people to analyze their own past fakery, to take stock of its damage, and to chart a better way forward.

"Think about the last time you faked it. How did you feel, and why did you fake it? What compelled you to feel like you had to fake it? And then, what happened? Were you exposed? How did you feel about it?" she asks.

"And then, based on your answers, think about what you could have done differently to get a better result. For example, how would you have disarmed the fear, if you were afraid? Or organized your risk, or obtained more information, somehow, to be more competitive?"

This kind of postmortem may be painful, but it's always worth it. Last I heard, my former boss was still faking it. And still not making it at all.

Listen to My Interview With Sabrina Horn

Discover fascinating insights from some of the world's leading business figures with my series of Mind Tools Expert Interviews.

If you're not a Mind Tools Club member, you can join here. Access over 2,400 resources, including more than 200 Expert Interviews. For corporate licensing, request a demo from one of our team.

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