Some leaders may employ a Body Double to confuse assassins, but those impersonators typically only look the part. But sometimes, that leader uses a Decoy Leader to take their place and impersonate them, often conducting him or herself as if they were the real deal. The decoy leader needs to be able to speak and act like the real leader. Often, the real leader feeds them instructions via audio device, hand signals, extensive training, or other means so the leader can conduct meaningful policy. Usually, the decoy is willing to die for the leader, and has little to no political ambitions of their own. The decoy helps the leader avoid the limelight and long daggers of assassins.
Where this gets interesting is that in some cases, the decoy doesn't need to look anything like the leader either, as long as no one knows what the real leader looks like. A long-standing king, queen or president couldn't use this variant tactic, but a secretive leader of La Résistance or head of The Syndicate (who no one outside the organization has ever met) could use a decoy who doesn't look at all like them.
If the real leader is a Master of Disguise or can at least clean up nicely, they'll use this to move around royal and civil society freely. The leader will likely enjoy going about with the common folk; they can find out what everyday people really think of him or her. Of course, a savvy hero or villain will be able to tell this King Incognito out, due to a "tell" such as their regal bearing or comportment.
How does a leader create a decoy leader? The decoy may be an actor who is skilled at taking on roles. Perhaps the decoy is a member of the regime's intelligence services, which also means they are skilled at taking on cover roles. Alternatively, the decoy may be a high-ranking member of the ruling caste, which makes it likely that they can pass as a leader, as they know the customs and rituals. In all cases, the decoy needs extensive briefing and training so that they know enough to play the role of leader.
Compare Puppet King, where the actual legal leader has become purely a tool for somebody else. The logical extreme of this trope is the El Cid Ploy, where the real leader may be missing or even dead but still "commands" because another is impersonating him or (as in the original) no one realizes that he's dead. Also compare with The Man in Front of the Man, for when The Man Behind the Man poses as a supposed minion of the Decoy Leader, and Actually, That's My Assistant, for other times people mistake a subordinate for the leader.
Compare The Man Behind the Man, a hidden person who controls a real leader behind the scenes.
- In Rakuin No Monshou, this was Fedom's plan when Prince Gil was shot. Orba would take over the Prince's spot in the Empire and eventually become Emperor, with Fedom manipulating him to become the power behind the throne.
- In Fairy Tail, the Greater-Scope Villain E.N.D. is touted as the master of the dark guild Tartaros, but is sealed within a book carried by Mard Geer, his Number Two. However, the truth is that E.N.D. was sealed in his book all along, and Mard Geer merely used the book as a figure to rally the rest of the guild around, effectively passing his own orders off as the will of E.N.D. Moreover, the book only contains E.N.D.'s demonic essence; his real identity is Natsu, the main character, who ironically ends up helping tear down the very dark guild he was presumed to have built without anyone save Zeref the wiser until a year after the fact when Zeref revealed the truth to Natsu.
- Mr. Pilgrim from Steelgrip Starkey and the All-Purpose Power Tool.
- One might consider Doctor Doom doing this by proxy of Doombots; he can do research or fight the Fantastic Four while they "lead" the country.
- When Johnny Storm was temporarily given his sister's powers and became the new Herald of Galactus, his ability to see the truth in this state allowed him to see that the man an alien race identified as their leader was actually just a big mook used by the real leader (a shorter, older figure) to look impressive when issuing orders.
- One of the various origins of The Joker involved this. A criminal gang would hire a random schmuck to dress up as the villainous Red Hood, and accompany them during heists. The police would assume that the supervillain is obviously the leader, and all the others are just hired Mooks, an assumption that the gang members would back up if they were ever caught. That way, they could get less severe prison sentences. If the "Red Hood" ever wanted out, they could just replace him with someone else, as the costume totally obscured the face. The scheme worked for a while, until they ran into Batman, and that crime's "Red Hood" was knocked into a vat of chemicals...
- Wonder Woman Vol 1: Captain Redbeard is a known criminal and the leader of a bunch of plane flying sky pirates, but in actuality the leader is his wife, who was never implicated in anything criminal until Wonder Woman saw through their organization.
- All Assorted Animorphs AUs:
- Ax is essentially this in “What if Ax joined the team in the first book?”; Elfangor appointed him a Prince before his death, but Ax quickly realises that he doesn’t make a good leader and defers to Jake’s authority. He only acts as a Prince when talking with other Andalites, and even then he arranges to consult with Jake before making any final decisions, until the war ends and Ax can officially introduce Jake as the team’s true Prince.
- In "What if they lived in the Civil Rights Era?", after Jake is killed, everyone pretends that Tobias was the Animorphs' leader all along because the others are either disabled, minorities, female, or multiple of the above.
- In the The Hunger Games/Angel crossover "Demon's Games", Katniss is essentially this for Angel; while Angel is the official leader of District Thirteen (which here was once a prison for Wolfram & Hart's enemies before they created Panem), he is training Katniss to serve as the public face of the resistance to the Capitol on the grounds that people will be more accepting of her. However, while Angel encourages Katniss to take the lead, he doesn't force her to do anything she doesn't feel ready for, and she in turn acknowledges that Angel is in charge when discussing their plans even as she is encouraged to voice her opinion. After Buffy returns, Angel still advises that the resistance treat Katniss as their only active Slayer in the field as Buffy doesn't have Katniss's public reputation, allowing Thirteen to send Buffy on more stealth-required missions while Katniss draws the Capitol's attention to their more public attacks.
- The Smallville/The Fast and the Furious crossover On the Run opens with Letty basically setting up Clark to be this; when he’s entering a racing competition to track down the man who apparently murdered Chloe, Letty acts as his advisor, giving him tips on how to beat Dom in a street race despite Clark’s lack of experience.
- In The Other Side (memoriaeterna), Quentin Beck basically assumed that Peter Parker was this, which leads to him being swiftly taken down as he underestimates everyone's loyalty to Spider-Man.
- In Batman Begins, Ra's Al Ghul uses a decoy as supposed leader of the League of Shadows. However, the decoy supposedly doesn't speak English and has the real Ra's "translating" for him, so he's effectively just a figurehead. Another scene reveals that the decoy can speak English, which helps sell deception to the viewer. Also seen later (or earlier depending on perspective) in court when a Mook claims to be the actual head of the Falcone crime family.
- Kuato the mutant in the original Total Recall (1990) was hidden under the shirt of his decoy "host".
- The title character in Dave was supposed to be this, but he ended up turning against his handlers.
- Star Wars
- In The Phantom Menace, Queen Amidala operates as the Queen Incognito Padme — which is her real name — and throughout the movie has a decoy-bodyguard, Sabe, who replaces her. Both happen to be handy with a blaster. Helping the deception along is the fact that the Queen of Naboo always wears heavy ceremonial makeup.
- In the original cut of the scene in A New Hope where Solo talks to Jabba in front of the Falcon, he was talking to a human. One of the short stories in the Expanded Universe explains that this man was a decoy authorized to negotiate with smugglers in Jabba's name. Then the remastered version of the film rendered that explanation meaningless when they have Han talk to the real Jabba in that scene.
- A scene in The Last King of Scotland sees Nicholas mistake a double of Idi Amin for the genuine article, which gives the real Idi Amin much to laugh about.
- Superman II. The assistant to the President of the United States tries this when the three Kryptonian super villains drop in for a visit. General Zod is not fooled, however.
Zod: You are the one they call "President"?
Assistant: I am.
Zod: ... Kneel Before Zod.
Zod: You are not the President. No one who leads so many could possibly kneel so quickly.
President: [steps forward] They're protecting me. I'm the President.
- At the end of The Eagle Has Landed the protagonist appears to successfully assassinate Winston Churchill before being shot. However it turns out he was an impersonator and the real Churchill was at the Tehran conference all along. It was noted that if he had spoke, it would have blown it.
- In Wild Wild West, the first version of Ulysses S. Grant we see is actually Artemus Gordon, but Jim West sees through the deception. Seconds later the real Grant arrives and chews them both out, suggesting he was unaware of what Gordon was doing. Note that both Gordon and Grant are played by the same actor. This gets repeated in a later scene where Loveless tries to kidnap the President and Gordon shows up disguised as Grant to buy the President time to escape. Unfortunately, before the President figures out that he's supposed to be leaving so that the imposter can be kidnapped, Loveless grabs them both. Gordon can't help but praise himself even when in-character, which is partly what causes West to realize he's not the President. The other reason? Gordon forgot to take off his Harvard ring. West is fully aware that Grant attended West Point.
- In Iron Man 3 "The Mandarin" is actually a washed up vice-addled British actor named Trevor Slattery hired by Aldrich Killian, the real villain, to "explain" the explosions caused by Killian's supersoldiers loosing control of their powers by making them seem like terrorist attacks (and it's suggested Slattery isn't even aware he's talking about real events because he's out of his mind on drugs most of the time). Needless to say, as All Hail the King shows, the actual Mandarin is not happy.
- In the BattleTech Expanded Universe, several novels detail uses of decoys for a variety of leaders: Jenna Clay subbing for Melissa Steiner is the most straightforward of these, but Hanse Davion and Thomas Marik both had doubles. Hanse's double was a plot by Maximilian Liao to take control of the Federated Suns, but Thomas Marik's double was a plot by ... Thomas Marik.
- Death and Diplomacy takes this a step further: even the real leader thinks that the decoy is the one in charge. Confusing things further, his people have set up a cunning double bluff where he's officially the leader, meaning that everyone assumes he's the decoy, and the "minor official" he consults with (the actual decoy) is the real leader. (In theory. When he learns the truth, the swiftness with which his people accept it leads him to suspect that maybe they all knew apart from him all along.) Complicated double-dealing and duplicity are this race's hat.
- In Nomads of Gor the leaders of the four tribes of Wagon Peoples [sic] all employ these - the Wagon Peoples know who the leaders really are but outsiders think the decoys are the leaders.
- An Earth girl is also substituted for a female Gorean leader in Kajira of Gor.
- A variation in The Healing Wars, with the leader of La Résistance, Onderaan, and his Number Two, Jeatar, who is younger, quieter, and defers to him in public. Nya notices that Onderaan tends to defer to Jeatar out of the view of the rest of the rebellion, and it's later revealed that Jeatar is mostly handling their tactics, financing the Underground, and is actually the Duke's nephew, preferring to not draw attention to avoid this last item getting him hunted down and killed. Eventually they give up on the disguise in order to use Jeatar as a rallying point and figurehead for the combined resistance.
- Essentially the primary role of the President of the Galaxy in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; it is explicitly stated throughout the novel that the real role of president is not to wield power but to draw attention away from the fact that nobody is publicly in charge (part of the reason Zaphod Beeblebrox took power was to find out who was really in charge).
- The Machineries of Empire: The Hexarchate Galactic Superpower is ruled by the leaders of its six factions. Unknown to the public, the Nirai Hexarch is a decoy, hiding that the true Hexarch is an immortal Virtual Ghost.
- Nick Velvet: In "The Theft of the Bermudan Penny", Nick eventually figures out the solution to the current mystery when he realises that the man claiming to the millionaire's personal companion is actually the millionaire, and the supposed millionaire is actually the personal companion; having swapped roles to allow the millionaire to study Nick and work out what his motivations are.
- The Nikolai Duology: When king Nikolai goes missing, his allies get Isaak, one of the royal guards, to pretend to be the king so that the country wouldn't descend into chaos. The appearance isn't a problem, since they can just use magic for that, but imitating the king's behaviour and mannerisms is way harder. He also has a lot of trouble navigating diplomatic situations, since he is just a guard from a poor family with no experience in court politics. Luckily the king's advisors are there to help him.
- An interesting variation in Starfighters of Adumar: General Wedge Antilles arranges for a couple of fighters in each squadron of his allied force to have identity transponders that can switch between their real details (Adumari pilots gain prestige from downing more experienced foes, so this information is readily available even to the enemy) and one picked from the top thirty or so pilots in the force. Likewise the genuine best pilots could switch their IDs for nobodies. In addition to general misdirection and confusion ("How'd that guy end up on the opposite end of the battlefield?"), he hopes the honor-obsessed Cartaanese pilots will go haring off after the decoy aces (who would ideally be good at evading even if they were bad shots), allowing the alliance's best shooters time to line up. He also exploited the relatively primitive Adumari sensors by having a squadron of fighters fly in tight formation and all broadcast the same ID, so that they'd appear to be a single large bomber or command ship until the enemy got into visual range, while at the same time having the command ships and bombers broadcast multiple IDs so they would appear to be fighter squadrons without any prestigious aces (or with them, in the case of the well-shielded and heavily-armed command ships), thus allowing the bombers to more easily reach their targets.
- In season six, when CTU was invaded by Chinese mercenaries, they asked "who's in charge?" Milo, who wasn't in charge, but was in love with Nadia, who was in charge, stood up and said "I am," so they shot him.
- This was the case of the first season's Big Bad, Victor Drazen. Before the events of the series Jack led a team to assassinate him, but wound up killing one of these instead (IDW's comic prequel, Nightfall also shows this in more detail).
- In the Arrested Development episode, "Exit Strategy", the Saddam Hussein on trial clams to be this, alleging that the real Saddam has a scar on his head and "I'm No-Scar... Dot Com!"
- Elementary: During the first season Holmes and Watson speak to Moriarty via phone several times but in the season finale they, and the audience, learn that the man they were speaking to was actually one of Moriarty's lieutenants. Moriarty explains that they frequently do this to help disguise Moriarty's identity and to hide the fact that Moriarty is a woman from sexist clients that wouldn't take her seriously.
- In an episode of Stargate SG-1 involving brainwashed assassins programmed to sabotage negotiations between the Unites States and the Tok'ra, both sides do this.
- It's eventually revealed that the person in charge of The Conspiracy in Utopia is not Letts but his anonymous aide. And then the assistant turns out to be a cleverly disguised foil, and the real Man Behind the Man is Milner.
- Kamen Rider V3 ends with the skull of Destron's leader being cracked open, revealing only a tape player.
- Kamen Rider Amazon reveals that the Emperor Zero that's been in charge the whole time is really just a stand-in for the real one.
- Vincenzo: The public face of murderous Evil, Inc. conglomerate Babel Group is Jang Han-seo. But it turns out that Han-seo is only a stooge, and the real chairman of Babel is Jang Han-seok, his older brother, who is Ax-Crazy and The Sociopath and basically the reason Babel is Evil, Inc. in the first place. He controls everything from the shadows while posing as "Jang Joon-woo", an intern at the law firm that represents Babel Group. When asked why he does this, Joon-woo says 1) for fun, and 2) in order to avoid jail if things go wrong.
- Red Panda Adventures: The primary gimmick of the Archangel, the leader of the Nazi spy rings in Canada, is to send a stand-in anytime Archangel is expected to be in on the job. Whether it's just practicality or sending the stand-in on a suicide mission as punishment for failure, they are almost all fanatically loyal to the true Archangel and will kill themselves upon capture, some even attempting to blow up or otherwise kill anyone else with them at the time. By about the fourth time, the Red Panda and Flying Squirrel stop assuming they've captured the real one. Archangel uses this trick even among his own inner circle, as in "All the King's Men", the Red Panda's agent Harry Kelly identifies the true Archangel by noting that, while one man was running the meeting, everyone was deferring to someone else entirely.
- One D&D adventuring party that was written up in Polyhedron magazine included a gnoll henchman who, thanks to what his human companions thought would be a one-time ruse to sneak him into a city, wound up becoming renowned as a powerful (human) knight whom the other party members served. It became routine for him to put on full plate armor and ride impressively in the midst of the group, who played along at being the "mighty knight's" minions because having such a famous warrior among them got them more respect (and higher payment for their work) than having a sidekick.
- In one Paranoia module, The Computer anticipates Straight for the Commander and arranges for a decoy. As usual, it Didn't Think This Through:
Green-clearance Team Leader: All right, men, let's go!Bystander: (eyeing "Blue"-clearance Executive Officer) Hey, why are you letting him order you around?"Blue"-clearance Executive Officer: Hey, yeah! *BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM* All right, men, let's go!
- Used in Henry VI by the Dauphin of France to test whether Joan of Arc could tell the difference. (She could.)
- Also used in Henry IV, Part 1, where Sir Walter Blunt wears the king's armor and is killed in the battle (see Real Life below).
- In Richard III, in the decisive Battle of Bosworth the eponymous king fails to kill Earl of Richmond (who is accordingly to become Henry VII right after this battle) because the latter placed multiple decoys in his lieu. This is probably an Artistic License – History, since the chronicles are silent on any use of decoys in this battle.
- Parodied in Bangai-O with Nise (Fake) Gai, a doppelganger that the Cosmo Gang occasionally uses to substitute Gai in battle. Given that he wears a flimsy disguise and overacts his assigned role, it's no wonder that Riki sees right through him. The latter then decides to briefly mess with the former a little, assuming that he is the ''real'' Gai after all.
- In Dark Souls, "Gwynevere" is actually an illusion controlled by the Dark Sun Gwyndolin, the real Gwynevere having abandoned Anor Londo long ago to marry a foreign god. Even "her" sunlight is just an illusion which is dispelled if the player kills "Gwynevere".
- The head of the Valkyr drug cartel in Max Payne is thought to be The Don Angelo Punchinello. However, the real head is the Corrupt Corporate Executive of Aesir Corp, Nicole Horne.
- The ruler of the Shi in Fallout 2 is publicly known to be the Shi Emperor, who hides from public view for security. The actual ruler turns out to be the Emperor's adviser. As it turns out the 'Emperor' is a — non-sapient — supercomputer the supposed adviser uses as an aide to making decisions which are then passed on to the public as the Emperor's decisions.
- Seen in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but only if the player joins the Dark Brotherhood and completes the quest chain. One of the final missions involves killing the Emperor himself by impersonating a famous chef and poisoning his soup. Of course, it turns out that the one who eats the soup is merely a decoy; the real Emperor is encountered later in the chain.
- This trope comes into play for later updates of Mega Man Rock Force, with Crypt Man acting as the leader and general spokesbot for the latest batch of hostile Robot Masters. The real leader is Justice Man, Mega Man's newest partner who was assumed to have been damaged in an earlier incident and actually led the attack from behind the scenes in an effort to bring freedom for all robots.
- RWBY: In Volume 5, we're led to believe Vernal is the Spring Maiden, but when Cinder kills her, we discover that she was actually a decoy for Raven, who is the real Spring Maiden.
- Genocide Man: In the absence of Jacob and Dr. Fumiaki, Msaka assumes command of the Corvo Islanders, but immediately finds that Girii's empathy gives her effective veto power. Her solution is to abdicate and make Girii the leader instead... giving exactly the orders that the fearsome Msaka "advises" her to give.
- In My Succubus Girlfriend, the demon we we see on Hell's throne in the first season is an example of this trope. And the actual boss is not especially pleased at how the climax went down.
Lucifer: I give you one job. Pretend to be me so I can slack off. And you FAIL.
- Many real life examples throughout history.
- During the battle of Kulikovo field in 1380 prince of Moscow Dmitry "of Don" gave his recognizable bright armour, banner and the horse to a young warrior, while Dmitry donned simple armour and fought as an ordinary footman. The obvious explanation that Dmitry was hiding in a safer place is often contested — he went to the "big" (central) regiment, where the fighting was expected to be (and was) the most brutal.note The decoy boyarin was killed, Dmitry was wounded, trampled and left for dead, but ultimately survived. His exact motives are still debated.
- Basically the same happened during the 1442 battle of Sibiu in Transylvania between Hungarians and Turks: Transylvanian voivode János Hunyadi switched armor with his knight Simon Kemény; the latter was killed in the battle.
- Even before that, during the 1330 battle of Posada between Hungarians and Wallachians, Charles Robert (Charles I of Hungary) used the same trick with the knight Dezső Héderváry, with the same result for the knight. Unlike the previous two examples, however, the party employing the trick actually lost the battle (Charles Robert was barely able to escape).
- This is what also happened (possibly unintentionally) to the royal standard-bearer Walter Blount during the battle of Shrewsbury (1403) between Henry IV and rebel forces led by Henry "Harry Hotspur" Percy, Duke of Northumberland. Blount's armor looked like Henry's, so he was mistakenly attacked and killed by the rebels; the battle had been a near loss for Henry VII, but all ended well for him because Percy himself was much less lucky in evading death on the battlefield. Shakespeare later eulogized Blount in Henry IV, Part 1 (as 'Sir Walter Blunt'), stating that he intentionally stood as a decoy.
- Basically the same happened during the 1442 battle of Sibiu in Transylvania between Hungarians and Turks: Transylvanian voivode János Hunyadi switched armor with his knight Simon Kemény; the latter was killed in the battle.