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Chameleon Leaders and How to Spot One?


Yes, you may have been in the presence of a “Chameleon Leader” or even have had multiple “Chameleon Leaders” during your career.

A lot is being written these days about leadership and leadership development. However, the reality for many subordinates is to continuously be exposed to sub-optimal and bad leadership. Gallup recently reported that 70% of the workforce is disengaged. About 70% of all managers, approximately 7 million of them, are “not properly developing or worse [they] are outright depressing 70 million employees”[1]. Not all of these are Chameleon Leaders, but very many probably are.

What do we consider a Chameleon Leader?

On the surface these leaders seem to be saying and doing the right thing, blending in with personnel, seemingly even helping some along the way. They are extroverted, at first sight charming, intelligent and busy leaders. They create their own “chaos and crisis”, then going about solving the very chaos and crisis they personally directed and created. He/she rarely sees a link between themselves and the chaos.

During the process, they publicly provide a detailed description of the seriousness of the matter to their personnel and their indispensable role to solve the crisis.

These two are critically linked, as the whole organization, in the eyes of this leader, depends upon his/her capabilities and survival skills. The type of chaos and crisis can be any thing, though it is frequently related to strategic direction, innovation, organizational development, or key hires.

A Leader in Disguise

The Chameleon Leader is overly involved in career development of their personnel and is particularly interested in mingling with the junior staff and calls this affectionately “mentoring”.

He/she considers the team his/her extended family and openly brags about it. Tenure for this leader is a goal in and of itself. The longer the personnel is on board, the firmer an employee will be in the grip of the leader. Personnel frequently misreads the behavior and may consider this leader to be an ‘ideal’ leader.

However, this is a leader in disguise and a true Chameleon. He/she attempts at times to connect and to collaborate and seems to be empathic to their personnel. This is however sociopathy disguised as empathy because often times his/her behavior unexpectedly changes and he/she turns into a manipulative, narcissistic and power hungry leader.

The leader is often demanding immediate attention by interrupting personnel’s daily activities, for example by calling urgent ad-hoc meetings. During these meetings sudden changes of direction are being told, not discussed.

A Chameleon Leader applies great sophistication and sly techniques to make people do what he/she wants and most any one will oblige, doing things one would normally not do. He/she is a great ‘communicator’, yet not open to dialogue. However, they use skip level meetings to receive gossip by personnel to use later on in a manipulative manner. Although the behavior is experienced by every one, it is not openly discussed by any one.

As this behavior is difficult to discern at first, a lot can happen when working in the presence of this type of leader. They bully their personnel and they often make a fool out of them publicly. They even demand for its personnel to publicly agree with the bullying. People early in their career are particularly vulnerable to this. They may develop self-esteem issues and may start to doubt their own talents and capabilities.

When personnel in the organization realizes this is happening, the authority loss for this leader is substantial. This does not seem to bother this leader. He/she is only superficially connected with its personnel and is already occupied by the next crisis and they are totally focused on and consumed by their day to day activities. This leaves no time and space for self-reflection, self-analysis and self-improvement.

Therefore to create choice, it is critical to recognize this personally invading leadership behavior.

Spotting the Chameleon by its Behavior – Chameleon Leaders at their ‘best’

  1. She/He plays favorite with those hired and/or promoted, disregarding inefficacy and even outright failure, being blindsided by loyalty and conformity of its personnel

Subjectivity (conformity) seems to be of much higher worth than objectivity (performance) to this leader. Personnel which does produce results is disregarded and even publicly punished at times. The leader blatantly mistakes agreement for loyalty and tenure for performance.

  1. She/He hires identical people like him/herself

He/she hires people like him/her and hopes nothing major will happen. There is no drive for performance and improvement. They resist pro-active thinkers and visionaries and are anti-innovation. In general, a Chameleon Leader resists better ideas or concerns from personnel which could demand personal changes by the leader.

  1. She/He does not always have the right intention

Intention is the most important factor in getting positive and successful leadership results and this leader mistakenly believes that mechanism by forced processes will make up for a less than good intention. Unfortunately, the outcome is never good.

  1. She/He is not completely honest with himself and others

A Chameleon Leader seems trapped by its own behavior. Although there may be a slight awareness that the organization is not functioning properly and efficiently, nothing is done about it.

A Chameleon Leader has usually hired all of the leadership team members with a specific personal and management target in mind.

The leader continuously pollutes the team by his/her behavior and a ‘special relationship’ with each individual leadership team member, allows the leader to use the team at his/her liking. As a result the group lacks key elements of a healthy functioning leadership team and has become a working group. Key team elements such as trust, healthy conflict, commitment, accountability and attention to results are fully absent[2].

Delegation is a sham. Activities and decisions seem delegated, but in reality every one knows to better check with the leader prior to making any decision. Therefore, this leader needs to be tracked and traced all the time. This is supposedly to keep him/her up-to-date on business issues. In reality, his/her communication is aimed at making the decision, every single time.

  1. She/He communicates up, but avoids any form of conflict

Continuously being aware of their own career. He/she will not challenge their superiors on issues that are critical to the business and indiscriminately accepts instructions and targets, even though they are problematic. They make unrealistic promises on personnel’s behalf which creates conflict. When such conflict arises or when something goes wrong, they bully and blame all involved. They use shuttle diplomacy, aimed at avoiding to transparently have to deal with the situation and to prevent detection.

They keep tight control of communication and manipulate the investigative outcome and their way out of conflict. Along the way, they make superiors believe what they want to hear.

What can One Do?

1. Heighten one’s awareness and modify one’s behavior when in the presence of this leader. By recognizing the behavior one can positively shield against the potential effect and create choice.

2. Do not attempt to change a Chameleon Leader or even gather colleagues’s support with the goal of ousting the leader. The organizational web created by this leader is so sophisticated that the slightest unwanted movement will be detected. The resulting action will have serious professional consequences.

3. Shorten the exposure to this type of leadership. View the experience as a career developmental period. Upon reflection, the experience with this type of destructive leader will certainly make one wiser. So, it is wise to move on. One will end up happier – next time around, no matter what.


Leaders can never promise an absence of chaos, which often may be driven by rapid growth, or changing market conditions. However, it is toxic and self-destructive for an organization to have their own Chameleon Leader create it.

Why seems the allure of these toxic leaders so great? No one really knows.

It seems personnel is trapped in an organization with a Chameleon Leader. No one is allowed to say anything on how the organization’s performance may be improved. Personnel need to please the leader at all times, or face the consequence of being fired. Given today’s economy, personnel often simply tolerates and stays put. As a result, personnel experiences unprecedented fear and unhealthy stress levels and the resulting output comes at significant personal and professional cost.

Chameleon Leaders create history, no organizational future. For this reason they can never be successful in an entrepreneurial environment. Caused by their lack of vision, these leaders run a risky operation by not intentionally preparing their organization for tomorrow.

All the more reason to be aware of a Chameleon Leader’s behavior and to react professionally, whenever confronted with it.

Question: Have you seen examples of a Chameleon Leader in action? You can leave us a comment by clicking here.


[1] Millions of Bad Managers Are Killing America’s Growth”, Jim Clifton, LinkedIn, June 19, 2013

[2] The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni

This article was originally published in Leadership Matters on 08 July, 2013.

Johan Reinhoudt

Johan is een voormalige life-sciences executive, oprichter en directeur van Top-Coach en PTSS Voorbij. Hij is de ontwikkelaar van het “True Result™ Executive Coaching 5-Stappenprogramma” (prestatieverbetering), en de “12-weken Coach™” (versneld en blijvend herstel van burn-out).

Dit is executive coaching door een ervaren senior executive en goed opgeleide professionele executive coach, waarbij geavanceerde coaching interventies worden gebruikt. De coaching is daarom dan ook bijzonder geschikt voor executives en professionals die "nu" vooruit willen en die willen investeren in een 1-1 persoonlijk ontwikkelingstraject met blijvende resultaten.

Johan is Master Certified Coach, Effortless Coach en Master Burnout Coach en hij is geaccrediteerd door de Nederlandse Orde van Beroeps Coaches (NOBCO), de Internationale Logosynthese® Vereniging (LIA) en de Internationale Coaching Council (ICC).
Verder is hij geassocieerd met de Europese Mentoring en Coaching Council (EMCC) en de Vereniging voor Uitgebreide Energie Psychologie (ACEP). Hij heeft gedurende de afgelopen twintig jaar vele aanvullende en geavanceerde trainingen gevolgd, waaronder een afgeronde opleiding tot Logosynthese® Practitioner.

Het is Johan ’s missie om met Top-Coach executives en professionals te ondersteunen bij het verhogen van hun persoonlijke prestatie, veerkracht en vitaliteit en daardoor op duurzame wijze bij te dragen aan een gezonde leef- en werkomgeving.

Hij is woonachtig in de regio Utrecht en werkt in een persoonlijk gesprek, live en online met executives en professionals in organisaties door geheel Nederland, maar ook internationaal.

Voor meer informatie kunt u hem vrijblijvend bellen via Tel. 030-200 6761 of e-mailen:

Johan is a former life sciences executive, founder and director of Top-Coach. He is the developer of the "True Result™ Executive Coaching 5-Step Program" (Performance Improvement) and the "12-week Coach™" (Burnout Recovery).

This is advanced executive coaching by an experienced senior executive and well-trained professional executive coach. The coaching is particularly suitable for executives and professionals who want to move forward "now" and who want to invest in a 1-1 personal development proces with permanent results.

Johan is a Master Certified Coach, Effortless Coach and Master Burnout Coach and he is accredited by the Dutch Association of Professional Coaches (NOBCO), the International Logosynthesis® Association (LIA) and the International Coaching Council (ICC).
He is also associated with the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) and the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology (ACEP). Over the past twenty years, he has completed many additional and advanced training courses, including a completed training to become a Logosynthesis® Practitioner.

It is Johan's mission with Top-Coach to support executives and professionals to increase their personal performance, resilience and vitality and thereby contribute to a healthy living and working environment in a sustainable way.

He lives in the Utrecht region in the Netherlands and works live and online in a personal conversation with executives and professionals in organisations throughout the Netherlands, but also internationally.

For more information you can call him via Tel.+(31) (0)30-200 6761 or e-mail:

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