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By Maxwell Leadership | August 17, 2012

The year was 1972 and fans packed Munich’s Olympic Stadium to witness the completion of the men’s marathon. By the time the race’s competitors reached the stadium, they would already have run 26 miles! Spectators waited in anticipation to see which contestant would arrive first and to cheer him to the finish line.

A roar from the crowd greeted the first runner to enter the stadium—German Norbert Sudhaus. Fans shouted encouragement and applauded wildly as he began the final, grueling lap of the race. However, cheers turned to gasps as, halfway around the track, Sudhaus was tackled by security guards. As it turns out, Norbert Sudhaus was an imposter. Wearing a blue track vest and yellow running shorts, he had snuck onto the race’s course just outside of Olympic Stadium and had tricked the crowd into thinking he was an actual contestant.

Moments later, when the real leader of the marathon (American Frank Shorter) ran into the stadium, he was dismayed to hear catcalls from the crowd. Shorter thought the boos were directed at him, oblivious that the spectators were still expressing outrage at Sudhaus’ hoax. Shorter would go on to win the marathon, and he remains the last American man to have won an Olympic gold medal in the event.

Players Versus Pretenders

If you’ve ever led people, then you’ve come across followers like Norbert Sudhaus, who would rather act the part than to put in the effort needed to become a champion. These people are pretenders, and while they can sometimes masquerade as players, a keen observer can tell the two apart. For a leader, it’s important to identify the pretenders within an organization before they disrupt the team’s momentum and damage its relationships.

Pretenders look the part and talk the part, but they fall short of fulfilling the part. Here are some of the ways to distinguish between who’s a real team player and who’s merely posturing for self-advancement.

1. Players have a servant’s mindset; pretenders have a selfish mindset.

Players do things for the benefit of others and the organization, while pretenders think only of benefitting themselves. A pretender is singly focused on outcomes that are in his or her best interest.

2. Players are mission-conscious; pretenders are position-conscious.

Players will give up a position to achieve a mission. Pretenders will give up a mission to achieve a position. For players, the progress of the mission is much more important than their own place within it, but a pretender will value his or her position more highly than just about anything else.

3. Players deliver the goods; pretenders only make promises.

A player is a team member who can be counted on to finish a task every time. The pretender will claim the ability to do so; but in the end, he or she does not consistently execute.

4. Players are job-happy; pretenders are job-hunters

Players love what they do and do it well. For them, work is fulfilling and meaningful, and they are devoted to carrying out their responsibilities with excellence. On the other hand, pretenders always see greener grass elsewhere. Since they’re constantly on the lookout to better their situation, they have no loyalty and will break commitments whenever doing so helps them to get ahead.

5. Players love to see others succeed; pretenders are only interested in their own success.

Rabbi Harold Kushner had a player’s mindset when he said, “The purpose of life is not to win. The purpose of life is to grow and to share. When you come to look back on all that you have done in life, you will get more satisfaction from the pleasure you have brought into other people’s lives than you will from the times that you outdid and defeated them.”

I think we all start out as competitors, but the goal is to grow past that mindset. In my adult life, I have evolved from competitor, to personal achiever, to team player, and on to team-builder. A player is happy when another member of the team succeeds because it benefits all. The pretender sees success as a win-lose proposition, and resents it when another person “wins.”

6. Players value integrity; pretenders value image.

In navigation, the rule is that what’s under the surface should be heavier than what is above the surface. Otherwise, the ship will capsize in a storm. Integrity is similar; what’s under the surface must be greater than what is in plain sight. A player can be counted on to do the right thing, even if nobody is looking.

Contrarily, pretenders do the right thing only when being watched, and they do whatever is expedient otherwise. Furthermore, since they focus on appearance rather than character, pretenders won’t admit fault when mistakes are made. They blame others for all of their problems instead of taking personal ownership of them.

7. Players make the hard choices; pretenders make the easy choices.

With a hard choice, the price is paid on the front end; the payoff only comes later. Such choices almost always include risk, and they usually involve the sacrifice of placing the organization above oneself too. Peter Drucker once said, “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” Players aren’t afraid to make those decisions.

8. Players finish well; pretenders fade out.

Some people start as players, but at some point they turn into pretenders. Why? I believe it’s because they overestimate the event and underestimate the process. They make the choice to begin, but they get tired of the work it takes to continue. Or they begin and proceed until they are confronted with the need to change. Unwilling to adjust, they begin pretending in order to get by. On the other hand, a player takes all tasks to completion.

Do you have a better idea of who the players and pretenders are within your team or organization? Remember that players will always ADD to the team’s efforts. But pretenders, at least in the long run, will COST the team. Knowing the difference between the two means that you’ll count on the right person to get the job done.

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  • Ryan Timlin says: January 19, 2020 at 9:42 pm

    The fact there even has to be an identification process between players and pretenders is a sobering truth, particularly in the case for ministry. I am currently enrolled in a leadership course and we have been referring to John Maxwell in our reading which is the very reason why I was drawn to this particular article written in relation with his company. It’s clear by his writing that the man has been around the block a time or two. He is certainly not ignorant to the dangers that can even befall a team comprised largely of good intentions. While this particular article brings to the reader’s attention ways to distinguish between a player and a pretender in the short term, Maxwell identifies in his book “Developing the Leaders Around You” the distinguishing traits that can be observed over the course of time. According to Maxwell, these true team players will develop strengths needed to become leaders and will then use their position to nurture the budding talents in others. It is clear both from the article and Maxwell’s book that a player is a selfless leader when he seeks the best for his coworkers and the vision of the company (Maxwell, 194).
    Reading this article and coming to understand the differences between the player and the pretender reminded me of Jesus’s warning of false prophets. In Matthew 7:15-16, He warns “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them” (NIV). Even in the context of a church organization, there will often be those even among leadership who are self-serving and full of poor intentions. Maxwell’s advice is supported directly by Scripture: “By their fruit you will recognize them” and by the outcome of what is brought forth a pretender will produce fruit that is rotten. A pretender is not able to reproduce a new harvest of potential leaders. On the contrary, the team player’s selfless lifestyle reminds me of the words of British missionary C.T. Studd, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” This article provides helpful ways to distinguish between the players and the pretenders on a team at a glance. It brings peace for me to know that even when those wolves in sheep’s clothing may not always be quickly identified, in time the quality of their fruits will bear witness and their true identities will be brought to light.

  • Doug Royer says: April 27, 2020 at 8:58 pm

    There is something interesting here that comes to mind. There will always be pretenders
    that are very good at pretending and hiding who they really are. I wonder though if there is a
    good way to weed out at least most of them before they become a part of the team? I am
    currently in a seminary class about leadership development and team building. We watched a
    video with Patrick Lencioni talking about the Five Dysfunctions of a Team. He talked about trust
    being the foundation of a leadership team. Many say that trust is built by deepening personal
    relationships with the other team members. Ryan Hartwig and Warren Bird, in their book Teams
    That Thrive, say that the way to grow trust is through seeing the person’s competency in the
    work that they do. They say, “First comes work, then comes trust” (2015, p.155). If trust is the
    foundation of a leadership team, then maybe this is the measure of which one can discern
    whether someone is a pretender.
    When it comes to trust I personally believe that it comes from both knowing a person on
    a deep relational level and by the work that they do. The thing is, the pretender could do the
    work in a competent way for a while and until he figured out, the damage is done. Just trusting a
    person because of task competency I believe will fall short in weeding out the pretenders. On the
    other hand when a relationship is built and one sees the “ugly” side to the person, this will reveal
    the pretender. The bad thing is, some people are good at pretending in all areas of life and thr
    truth does not come out for some time. This is the hard part in trying to prevent pretenders from
    even getting on the team. There are some people that have a gift for reading people and maybe
    leaning on these will help for prevention but there will probably always be some that sneak in. I
    like the Scripture reference that Ryan Timlin uses because Jesus was directly speaking about
    people like this that “come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt.
    7:15, ESV).

  • Stephanie Randolph says: January 25, 2021 at 7:44 pm

    What a great analogy made with using the pretender of an Olympic marathon runner to leaders and team members who do not want to put in the effort. I am currently taking a leadership course, and watched a video about the five dysfunctions of a team. It mentions that one of the dysfunctions of a team is “Lack of Commitment” (Patrick Lencioni). The pretenders who do not put in the effort or as Lencioni put it, “The lack of buying in” only causes friction for the team. When a leader or team member just want to hear the “roar of the crowd” and seek attention, reward, and position, the team will suffer. In the book Building Leaders, Malphurs and Mancini emphasize the importance of connecting with others on ones team. They stated, “Touch a heart before you ask for a hand” (2004,p. 55). Therefore, to have a strong team the leader and members have to be players and invest and connect with each other building trust and confidence in one another.

    I also appreciated how this blog emphasizes the importance of a player having a servant’s mindset and not a selfish one. Malphurs and Mancini in their book Building Leaders, revealed the importance of servanthood in a leader. They express that, “The essence of leadership is service, not status” (2004, p. 20). This is the type of leadership that Jesus models to Christians and to the church. Jesus said that he, “Came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). In fact his last lesson to his disciples was of servanthood and love, as he washed their feet (John 13:1-17). When someone leads with a servant’s mindset he or she will not have a selfish mindset and will be a player. I also feel if one leads with a servant’s mindset and heart, he or she will also have all the other aspects of a player listed in this blog.

    These points listed of the characteristics and aspects of players and pretenders are helpful to identify the pretenders on your team. I believe this is valuable to recognize so the leader can hold him or her accountable for the wrong actions or mindsets. However, the list is also helpful on how to be a strong leader and team member. It is a great tool to use for leadership development as well.

  • Terry L Matthews says: January 29, 2021 at 2:01 pm

    Pretenders have been around since the beginning and throughout the Old Testament and I feel we should be prayerful when choosing a leader or someone to be a part of a leadership team. We are working with limited information, we know in part and we see in part. Is it my job to weed out certain people or will they fall by the wayside. When the workers in Matthew 13:24-30 told Jesus that there was tares in the wheat and they ask if He wanted them to separate the wheat from the tares and He replied no, and he told them what would take place doing the time of harvest; in verse-29 He told them why. I am slow to speak and quick to hear, meaning, I would rather let God be the judge of who is real and who is pretending.

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