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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.

This article is used by permission from Leadership Wired, Dr. John C. Maxwell's premiere leadership newsletter, available for free subscriptin at

Author Biography

John C. Maxwell
Web site: Injoy Group
John Maxwell grew up in the 1950s in the small Midwestern city of Circleville, Ohio. John's earliest childhood memory is of knowing that he would someday be a pastor. He professed faith in Christ at the age of three, and reaffirmed that commitment when he was 13. At age 17, John began preparing for the ministry. He attended Circleville Bible College, earning his bachelor's degree in 1969. In June of that same year, he married his sweetheart, Margaret, and moved to tiny Hillham, Indiana, where he began his first pastorate.

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