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Do You Feel Like an Impostor Now?

If you do, join the crowd.

Wikipedia defines Impostor Syndrome as “a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud'”.

The term dates back to research by Clance & Imes published in 1978, in which they examined the “impostor phenomenon” in high-achieving women.  They studied social and psychological factors, and provided recommended therapeutic approaches.

Impostor Syndrome in the Present
Fast forward 40+ years, and the term has taken on a less clinical and a more colloquial meaning.

A Google search yields articles and videos with titles such as:
– How you can use impostor syndrome to your benefit, or
– The five types of impostor syndrome and how to beat them.
And of course it wouldn’t be the Internet if we didn’t have:
9 Telltale Signs You Have Impostor Syndrome (gotta have those checklists).

Now, full stop, there are indeed real cases of people feeling they don’t belong in leadership, particularly when they’ve faced abuse or contempt within the workplace.  But I’m not talking about that.

I’m talking more about the everyday case of Impostor Syndrome, where you feel like you’re in over your head (particularly if you’re a new leader), or feel like you don’t know what you’re doing.

Given today’s circumstances, a certain amount of Impostor Syndrome is a given for most, if not all, leaders.

Impostor Syndrome and Old Age
Trying to avoid Impostor Syndrome is like trying to avoid the ills of old age.  If you’re lucky enough to have the experience, you’re lucky enough to enjoy the attendant consequences.

In most cases, Impostor Syndrome occurs immediately after you’ve been promoted.
Because you don’t know what you’re doing; you’ve not done it before.

If you’re relatively new to your role, you may have had some briefing about and support in your new role, but often not an extensive amount.  If you’re occupying what was your manager’s role, your knowledge about the role is most likely based on those times you met with him or her.  But that represents a very small fraction of what your manager did and knew.

So you’ll be in the dark about a good portion of your new role.  And that’s not uncommon.

If you’re not a new leader, but you’re confronting COVID-19 (and who isn’t these days), there’s little that could have prepared you for today’s reality.  Feelings of doubt and insecurity are a natural consequence of leading in an unfolding reality with an unknown path and uncertain consequences.

So How to Reduce the Feelings of Impostor Syndrome?
1)  Accept that you’ve been thrown into the deep end of the pool, and that it’s not your fault.  In my experience, most cases of Impostor Syndrome arise from some sense (often incorrectly) that “I should know what I’m doing” or “If I was a successful leader, I’d be confident, certain, and know always what to do” (also, usually wrong).
At the heart of it is often an unrealistic set of expectations that the leader has of him- or herself.  Paradoxically, that’s often the reason why the leader has ascended in their career.  That drive and ambition, coupled with high expectations and a feeling of never being good enough yields high-level performance.  But often at a personal cost.  Self-doubt and Impostor Syndrome are some of the prices paid.

2)  Don’t go it alone.  Yes, I know our society has this myth of the self-made man or woman, who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, overcame so much adversity, to become this highly successful (and often) very public leader we should all admire and model ourselves after.  So put that unrealistic image and goal aside, and think of who else is in this boat with you.  Surely, in your network of colleagues, friends, and family there are others who are experiencing the same or similar challenges as you.  And if they’re like you, they are similarly a high achieving leader, who’s also intensely self-critical, and currently feels like an Impostor.  So there, you already have a lot in common.  Together, you will likely find solutions you otherwise would not have found on your own.

3)  Take some perspective.  I recently saw a piece about those born around 1900 and what they would have experienced in their lifetimes.  I thought of my and my wife’s grandparents.  Here’s what they experienced in the course of their lives:

  • World War I
  • Spanish Flu pandemic
  • The Great Depression
  • Word War II
  • The Korean War
  • Bay of Pigs / Cuban Missile Crisis
  • Assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.
  • The Vietnam War / Watergate
  • The breakup of the Soviet Union
  • 9/11 (for those “fortunate” enough to live beyond 100)

So, yes, COVID-19 is something we’ve not seen before, but previous generations and leaders have been able to navigate through first-time events also.  For some perspective, World War II lasted 6 years.

4)  Deep down, you know you’ll do whatever it takes to succeed.  The following photos of the front of our house were taken yesterday.  Apparently a while ago, seeds from a pine tree (from somewhere, not in the front of our house) found their way into the gutter alongside the roof, took hold, and here’s the result:

Roof pine sapling
Roof pine sapling - 2

They’re great reminders that the qualities of hope, tenacity, and determination aren’t exclusive to pine saplings.

Be safe, stay healthy, and lead well.