The Man Behind the Man controls a real leader behind the scenes. Some leaders may even employ a Body Double to confuse assassins. But sometimes, that leader puts a decoy in front of them to avoid the limelight and long daggers.
A Decoy Leader takes the place of a leader and impersonates them, often conducting him or herself as if they were the real deal. 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.
Where this gets interesting is that the decoy doesn't need to look anything like the leader either. The leader may be a Master of Disguise or can at least clean up nicely, which they'll use in order to move around royal and civil society freely. In fact, the leader will likely enjoy going about with the common folk. Of course, a savvy hero or villain will be able to tell this King Incognito out.
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.
- 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 (1942): 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.
- 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.
- 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 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"?
Guy: 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).
- 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.
- 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 publically in charge (part of the reason Zaphod Beeblebrox took power was to find out who was really in charge).
- 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 appearence 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 poilitics. 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.
- One time when CTU was invaded by bad guys they asked "who's in charge?" One guy (who wasn't in charge, but was in love with the woman 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!"
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- During the battle of Kulikovo field in 1380 prince of Moscovia 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.