Leaders and Con Men: Should We Follow Their Example?

They work in the shadows and employ every trick in the book to get people to do what they want.  Usually it’s “hand over the money.”  As leaders, we’re trying to get people to do things, too.  So is there really much difference between leaders and con men?  Is there anything we can learn from these evil-doers that we can put to use for the good?

Leaders and Con Men

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The Confidence Game

Con men, or con artists, are manipulators who cheat or trick others into believing something that is not true.  The “Con” part comes from the word “confidence.”  In their attempts to separate a “mark” from his money, their first goal is to develop trust and confidence in them.  To do that, many of them employ techniques that establish them as authority figures.

In his book, Influence:  The Psychology of Persuasion, author Robert Cialdini reveals that con men do this by taking advantage of our own mental laziness.  People are naturally disposed to look for patterns or cues for how to behave in social situations.  Once we recognize these cues, we tend to suspend the effort that critical thought requires, and just follow the pattern we are familiar with. 

Cialdini highlighted three ways that con men use this mental and social shortcut against us.

How We Are Addressed

A title can make a big difference.  In an experiment at a college in Australia, a man was presented to five consecutive classes as a visitor from Cambridge University in England.  To each class the instructor presented him as someone slightly different.  To the first, he was described as a student.  In successive classes he was presented as having increasingly higher standing:  teaching assistant, lecturer, senior lecturer, and professor. 

After the visitor left the room, each class was asked to estimate his height.  The results were surprising.  With each increase in his claimed status, the student’s estimate of his height grew by half an inch.  His perceived stature as a full professor was an average of two and a half inches taller than when students thought he was one of their peers.  The greater the title, the larger he appeared to be.

Like other members of the animal kingdom, we tend to equate size with authority.  The bigger something is, the more respect it tends to garner.   The opposite is also true:  use of respected titles conveys an impression of greater authority, which explains the results of the student survey.  The title triggers the mental shortcut, and suddenly the visitor looms larger and more significant.

This reality explains why many con men, even those of above-average height, tend to wear lifts in their shoes to appear taller.  It is also how one con man in Britain posed at different times as a doctor, lawyer, and titled aristocrat, and was able to gain illegal access to patients, get expensive hotel rooms, and steal luxury cars. 

How We Are Dressed

What we wear also sends a strong signal.  One interesting experiment that illuminated this fact came from watching jaywalkers in Texas.  Researchers had a 31-year-old man violate the law by crossing the street at a busy intersection against the traffic light.  They watched from a distance and counted the number of other pedestrians on the corner who decided to follow the man’s example and jaywalk, too. 

The only difference between each observation was what the man was wearing – half the time it was work shirt and trousers, the other times he wore a freshly pressed business suit and tie.  As Cialdini notes, “Like the children of Hamlin who crowded after the Pied Piper, three and a half times as many people swept into traffic behind the suited jaywalker.”

The man’s clothing triggered that mental short cut.  Instead of deciding for themselves what to do, people saw the suit, interpreted it as a signal of authority, and followed his lead onto the busy road.  

Knowing this trigger, con men and advertisers alike make a point of dressing to fit the role.  We know the guy on TV trying to sell us medicine is probably not really a doctor, yet advertisers keep hanging stethoscopes around actor’s necks because it works.

As Sarah Treleaven writes, “victims often raise a con artist’s fashion or style choices as a key part of how they formed sufficient trust to give away large sums of cash, keys to their apartments, and even love.”


The things we surround ourselves with send powerful authority messages, too.  Here’s a third experiment, this time conducted at traffic intersections in San Francisco.  Researchers wanted to know how drivers would respond when the driver of the car ahead of them was slow to begin moving after the traffic light turned green.  The variable this time was the kind of car that was blocking traffic.

When the unmoving car was an inexpensive economy model, nearly all drivers behind them began to honk their horns, and most of them did so more than once.  In two cases, the following driver simply rammed the stationary car to signal his impatience. 

But when the car ahead was an expensive, high-status automobile, fifty percent of the drivers behind waited patiently for the car to move, never touching their horns at all.  It turns out that drivers of nicer cars tended to get a little more deference. 

Leaders and Con Men - TrappingsExpensive cars are another external signal of affluence and success, and we tend to associate the people who own those cars with some level of authority.  And it’s not just cars – the presence of expensive or high-prestige trappings activates that mental shortcut and changes the way we act.

That’s how another con man was able to convince women to give him hundreds of thousands of dollars.  He claimed to be a millionaire, work in the diamond industry, and used expensive cars, jewelry, private jets, and hired body guards to convince women to help finance his lavish lifestyle.  For a long time, it worked.  

So Should We…?

While these con artists use the short cuts of human psychology to cheat people and do harm, the question is, can we use these same ideas to help us to lead more effectively, and do some good?  I think the answer is yes.  Here are a few ideas.

As for titles, Americans tend to take a more informal approach to social interaction, so it’s not a good idea to start slinging titles around like so many baseball bats.  When it comes to true British aristocrats, Miss. Manners even counsels that they rarely introduce themselves using their own titles, so we should be suspicious of anyone who does.  

Even so, if you happen to have a formal position or title (that you’ve earned!), it can’t hurt to find more subtle ways for others to become aware of it, whether on a business card, name tag, the signature block in emails, a tasteful plaque on the wall, or nameplate on the door to the office.

And since leaders are in the business of growing more leaders, it can help to flip the script a bit.  When introducing our teammates to others, we can make a point of using their title if it will help convey a sense of authority.  Using their title or position of prestige will build them up in the eyes of others, and may as a result, build us up in theirs.

Regarding clothing, two thoughts.  First, dressing and looking the part just makes good sense because others become more willing to follow us.  Given the option, if we dress appropriately and professionally for the position it sets a good example, and is more likely to trigger the automatic reaction: this person is a leader.

The other idea has to do with the concept of “enclothed cognition.” It’s the idea clothes can actually put us in a different psychological state, too.  For example, researchers found that when wearing a white lab coat, subjects became two times more focused on completing an assigned task then when wearing their street clothes.  From lab coats to suits to uniforms, what we wear impacts how well we perform.  Dress the part, and we tend to be better at it. 

As for trappings, they can have the same effect.  High quality surroundings serve to impress and pre-dispose people to follow our lead.  But this doesn’t mean we have to be sporting a Rolex if we hope to lead.

Someone I met last year was between jobs.  He joined a breakfast group I am a part of as an effort to broaden his network.  I didn’t know much about him at the time, but he drove an older model car.  Every time I saw it in the parking lot, it was always immaculately clean inside and out, like it was ready for the show room floor.  That impression, combined with his unfailing punctuality and neat, slightly nicer than average dress, conveyed the impression that the kind of job he was looking for was somewhere in the higher echelons of a company. 

Sure enough, a few months later he ended up snagging a well-paying job at corporate headquarters.  Whatever the surroundings, keeping them neat, clean, and well-maintained makes a positive authoritative impact.

This works even in the Covid-19 era.  The image we project over video links in virtual meetings shouts volumes about who we are.  For more on ways to project a more authoritative persona, this post on Non-Verbal Skills for Virtual Team Leaders has eight ideas for you.

And like clothing, trappings can also make us more ready to do the leading.  For example, a 2009 study showed that men’s testosterone levels actually rose after they drove a Porsche.  The environment we arrange around us prepares us to function more effectively within it. 

Leaders and Con Men – The Takeaway

Practically from birth, people are conditioned to respond automatically to signals of authority.  How others are addressed, what they wear, and the trappings they surround themselves with all give off clues about how we should interact with them.

Confidence men have been using different combinations of these tactics against us for years, and the techniques they use don’t really vary all that much, because they are effective.  They use social signals to activate our mental shortcuts so that we place our trust in them.

So does that mean we should all start putting lifts in our shoes, tell people to address us as “Doctor,” buy expensive tailored suits, and take out a loan on a Porsche?  No (unless you really are a doctor).

What it does mean is that we can make it easier on ourselves to lead, and for others to follow, by accessing the same authority signals that con men do.  After all, there is a difference between leaders and con men. 

Our purpose is to help others, not “help ourselves.”

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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