How Pretending Develops Leaders

girls pretending to be cows

Your brain knows gibberish when it hears it. You can’t fool yourself. “I think I can,” sounds like a lie to someone who believes they can’t.

Pretending you can doesn’t help, but pretending does.
Expand skills and develop behaviors by pretending.


Fred’s performance stalled. It’s time for a tough conversation that you dread. Worse yet, tough conversations often end with you comforting rather than challenging. You’re a softy.

Invite a member of the leadership team for a walk. Tell them it’s time for a tough conversation with Fred. Say, “I’d like to run something by you.” Pretend you’re having the conversation with Fred.


  1. Don’t violate privacy by talking about Fred with his colleagues.
  2. Find someone on the leadership team who knows Fred, if possible.
  3. Use fellow leaders who have emotional intelligence.
  4. Approach someone who handles tough conversations well.
  5. Step outside your organization, when necessary, but protect privacy by changing names.
  6. Begin with the end in mine. Always explain the goal of the conversation, first. Describe how you want Fred to feel and behave after the conversation?
  7. Invite immediate feedback during practice. Ask, “How did it feel when I said …?”
  8. Try several approaches. Adapt your approach to Fred. What works for him?
  9. Seek alternatives from your partner. Ask, “How would you handle this situation?”
  10. Visualize positive results but practice the process.

Repeating, “I think I can,” while sitting in your office, won’t change a thing.

You tell yourself you can because you fear you can’t. 

“I think I can,” adds stress when you fear you can’t. On the other hand, pretending builds confidence and develops skills.

When I pretend, I often ask someone, “How does it feel when I say…?”

How has pretending helped your leadership?

How can leaders use pretending to develop leadership in others?

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