How To Expose A Two-Faced Leader

Two-faced leaders destroy culture, break trust, and diminish results. They act one way when you’re around, and another when you’re not. Frustrating when it’s a peer. Terrifying when you discover that Ms. Two-Faced is a leader in your organization.

In front of you she says and does all the right things. At other times, her witchy side emerges. You’ve been naively supporting the two-faced lie.

You see:

  • Receptivity to feedback
  • Helpful approaches
  • Warm engagement
  • Inclusive discussions
  • Calm and helpful meetings

Her team sees:

  • Threats and ultimatums
  • Micro-management
  • Yelling
  • Disorganization
  • Mismanaged stress

Chances are, they’re too scared to tell you.

If you’re a two-faced leader yourself, stop it. It will come out. It always does. If you sense a two-faced terror on your own team, read on.

Exposing a Two Faced Leader

  1. Hang around – Show up unexpectedly. Engage with the team in casual settings where they’re more likely to open up.
  2. Conduct skip level one-on-ones – Talk leadership style. Inquire about support. Ask what they need most. Ask for examples of great leaders. Some brave guys will bring up “two-faced.”  Avoiding the subject is also data.
  3. Conduct a 360 – Ms. two-faced may not fully recognize the differences in style with different audiences. Conduct an assessment, invite candor, and show her the data.  Get her a coach.
  4. Ask her – Don’t wait until you have files full of evidence. Ask questions without confronting. “How would you describe your leadership style? How does that play out in these different contexts?” “What would your team say about you” Watch for body language.
  5. Talk to her peers – They’ve heard the stories, and have felt the repercussions. They didn’t want to throw her under the bus, but “since you asked”
Posted in Authenticity & Transparency, Communication and tagged , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. Sometimes a 360 will be too much for a Two Faced leader to take. The spotlight shines directly on them.

    I like doing team surveys. They’re less directed at the leader and more of what the team is and is not getting.

    After a team survey you can introduce the 360.

    Take it slow. Similar to wading into the cold waters of an ocean on vacation. I rarely dive in. ;-p

    It’s l

  2. Hi Karin,

    I’ve often found that the biggest giveaway of a two-faced or sociopathic leader within my team is obsequiousness. If they suck up to me, are sycophantic, or are even just overly charming, chances are they’re little tyrants with their own reports.

    Appreciated your post and agree that cultivating good relationships across all levels is the best way to ensure a clear line of sight all the way to the front line. There’s definitely something to be said for MBWA (management by walking around).


  3. Observe them conducting a meeting with their team and watch body language. What happens when the meeting is over? Does anyone talk to them or do they all bolt for the door. Take the leader and a view of their team to lunch. What’s the relationship like? Of course, there is always hidden cameras I guess….just kidding. I would seriously never nanny-cam my team.

    The most terrifying experience I have had with a two faced leader was the moment I discovered the two faced leader was me. Several years ago, I realized I was saying one thing in team meetings and during training. Promising a fun place to work, but acting like a total power-hungry jerk during day-to-day operations. I both laugh at my old self, have pity on him, and ache for my past staff and the potential relationships I lost. I love your line….”If you’re a two-faced leader yourself, stop it.”

    • Eric, yeah…. we all have a couple of faces from time to time…. it’s all part of the growing. Thanks, as always, for sharing your story.

    • Jackie, Been there. I was in HR for many years. They will need data. Straight talk, followed by the potential impact on their career is a good start. If you are breaking through at all, then ask them to go talk to a few people they really trust and ask for very candid feedback one on one. External coaches can be very helpful in this arena as well.

  4. Interesting to think about why a leader is two-faced. What causes this? As a middle manager you are caught between your bosses above and your team below. Thinking about why this happens might be a good start in reducing the pressure that creates two-faced behaviors.

    In many small ways we are all two-faced. We behave differently at work than we do with our buddies.

  5. Thought provoking post. I am thinking about why leaders become two-faced. What creates the pressure that makes a leader show up with different behaviors at different times? Partly it is the stress associated with being in the middle. A leader has bosses who exert pressure to achieve goals and also a team to lead to complete those goals.

    How is it that some are able to walk between these two pressures with grace and consistency while others fracture and become two faced?

    Thinking about why it happens is a good start in solving the problem.

    • Marcus, YES! Getting to why is such an important part of this. The squeeze play pressures you articulate here are certainly part of it.

  6. Also interesting to think that we are all two-faced in many small ways.
    We behave differently with our buddies than we do with our mother in law.

  7. Karin,

    This was a great post, because it happens all too often. While I agree with Steve Borek’s comment on taking it slow, there will be times that our industry or workloads will demand a more decisive approach. Sometimes confronting the individuals will help them see their behavior from a different perspective. Constructive conflict has a more positive impact on organizational culture because it has the propensity to increase communication (constructive conflict challenges ideas, beliefs and assumptions) . With that said, leaders need to know how to use constructive conflict effectively. However, regardless of how you as a leader approach the situation, the final outcome will be based on whether your subordinate is willing to make the necessary character and communication changes to begin to rebuild trust within his particular department.


    • Jim….. that’s so tricky… because they are likely to do the best in an interview. It’s easier when they are internal… do your homework. I’m currently hiring for a key role, and I am spending a lot of time asking and listening to how folks rolll…. Harder when they’re come from the outside for sure.

  8. It can be really hard to discover a two faced person working for you. I think your suggestions are great. The more you know the dynamics in your department, the more you will be able to detect this. Skip level meetings are good. Also solicit feedback down the chain for performance reviews. I had a few terrible managers. If their managers had only asked me for feedback I would have given plenty.

    As for what to do if you find one, I am a strong believer in getting rid of them in many cases. If someone is two faced, they lack integrity, and may be a manipulative sociopath.

    If you are interested in more, I wrote a post on a case where an executive fired someone after finding out he/she was two faced.

  9. I am glad this is the topic of the day. It happens that I just had this conversation today with someone. It is so frustrating to work with a two-faced person let alone a leader who is one. I do like that someone mentioned “what causes this?” That is a great question. I personally think that there are several reasons. The main one, in my opinion, would be that they lack confidence in themselves. Also, It could be that they are getting pressured from their bosses, or that they want to impress whatever “type” or “group” of people they are currently talking to at that particular time, that they actually believe their lies, that they want to encourage instead of discourage (but really the hurtful truth is better than a harmful lie because it lends itself to growth). I struggle with confronting this behavior. I want to more often than not, but wonder if they really even care. I also don’t want to call them out in front of anyone and finding the appropriate time with a busy leader can be challenging. As a leader, I often ask for constructive feedback and truly desire candid feedback so that I can grow continually. I never want to be so prideful that I do not allow for growth. Proverbs 16:18 says “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Let’s all check ourselves and then try to help those who need it. Keep Growing! Thank you Karin for all your great posts!

    • Dawn, thanks for your very thoughtful addition. ” I want to more often than not, but wonder if they really even care.” Me too! That’s terrifying.

  10. Fascinating discussion, Karin. I like your suggestion to ask questions and to probe gently for the reason for the bifurcated nature.

    I wonder if all two-faced leaders will agree that they are two sided? Most people I know believe themselves to be internally consistent, although other people may not understand who they are and why they act. The reality could be that the TwoFace is not consistent, and only others perceive this. TwoFace does not see the split in the mirror.

    Have you ever heard of the JoHari window? Some parts of the personality and behavior are best understood by other people. Other parts of personality may never be shown to the world.

    Some people may act cordially to senior authorities and harshly to followers. Others may get tense and critical under pressure, while maintaining a warm regard when the work flow is moderate. Perhaps some TwoFace leaders only emerge under distinct conditions – and in this case, it is worthwhile to learn what those conditions might be, and help the leader learn as well.

    • Steve, YES! Johari is so relevent here. I think sometimes they know… and are motivated by fear or getting ahead and chose to do it anyway. What do you think?

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