Eventually in your leadership career, you will come up against a situation and think “I don’t know what to do”. Perhaps you’re having huge team issues that you can’t seem to solve. Or maybe you need to lead a project which lies outside of your field of expertise.
From time to time, you might feel like an imposter in your role. Like you don’t belong, that you’re not cut out for the job.
There is a name for this phenomenon that you might have heard before: Imposter Syndrome.
Now, you could grab your things, get in your car and just get the hell out of there.
But wait a minute, it’s going to be OK. Read on for a little while longer and see how you feel at the end of this post.
Imposter Syndrome Defined
So what is Imposter Syndrome? I like this definition:
“People who suffer from Imposter Syndrome have persistent feelings of inadequacy that remain even despite some evidence of success.”
You might also experience Imposter Syndrome as feeling like you’re going to be “found out”. Like you don’t belong, and that you’re not cut out to be in a leadership role.
Let’s not be dramatic about it. Imposter Syndrome is not a medical condition (as far as I’m aware). It simply means that you have strong feelings of insecurity about your capability and competence.
The Major Problem With Imposter Syndrome
Imposter Syndrome feels uncomfortable and unpleasant, but that’s not the real problem. Anyone can put up with feelings of self-doubt and insecurity for a while.
The real problems occur when Imposter Syndrome causes you to stop trying, to back off or to quit.
When good leaders stop believing in themselves, they stop speaking up and other people’s opinions become louder. Unfortunately, the people with the loudest and most forceful opinions are often the most ignorant of their limitations.
If you are feeling Imposter Syndrome, it’s probably because you have strong self-awareness. However, Imposter Syndrome makes your weaknesses and limitations seem greater than what they really are. It can make you feel exposed and inadequate, but often that’s not reality.
Imposter Syndrome becomes an issue when it makes you second-guess your decisions, stay quiet or take a back seat when people need you to be leading the way.
Later in the post we’ll look at some ways to reduce the impact of Imposter Syndrome so you can keep on leading.
My Personal Experiences With Imposter Syndrome
Imposter Syndrome is not new to me – I’ve felt it strongly several times during my career. Here are a few examples from my own experience.
Imposter Syndrome In New Leadership Roles
When I took on my first team leadership role, I wasn’t prepared at all.
I had interviewed for a technical position within a technology team. I’d already been working for a few years, so I said in the interview that I’d be interested in team leadership opportunities at some point in the future.
On my first day, my boss said “Do you want to take on that team leader role a bit earlier than planned?”. I said “Yes”.
I didn’t know what to do. Nobody enrolled me in a leadership course or told me how to lead the team. The team members knew far more about what was going on than I did. I just worked it out, feeling insecure along the way.
But hey, here I am, still alive and leading teams years later.
Imposter Syndrome Dealing With Difficult People
You’ll come across people with strong personalities in your career. These people might seem to know it all, or push their opinions very strongly. Dealing with people like this can see your insecurity spiralling out of control!
I once ran a consulting project where I had to work with experts in a particular field. Of course, I wasn’t an expert in that field, but I still had to run the project.
These experts were difficult. They had strong opinions, wanted everything their way and were generally painful to work with. They used their expertise as a battering ram to get what they wanted.
It was most unpleasant. But hey, I delivered the project successfully – it just wasn’t much fun!
Running Thoughtful Leader Causes Imposter Syndrome!
I started the Thoughtful Leader website around 2015. I’m passionate about helping leaders create great workplaces, fulfilled team members and positive team cultures.
However, for me it hasn’t been easy. After all, I’m not the CEO of Google or Microsoft or the leader of a country.
My brain often tells me things like “Who are you to write this stuff?” or “What have you done that gives you the right to say this?” or “You’re not as good as <amazing popular leader>”.
You might have seen my Thoughtful Leader Podcast graphic recently. Putting my face on that graphic as the “Thoughtful Leader” is confronting and scary, but I did it anyway.
Over the years, I have learned to say “Shut up, brain!” and keep going. The nagging thoughts don’t go away completely, but they don’t stop me either.
Feeling Like An Imposter? Try These Things.
Ok, so you feel out of your depth and inadequate. No problem, that’s normal. Here are some ways that I’ve found helpful in addressing this very common problem.
1. Cultivate a More Positive Mindset
Self-talk is one of the most powerful forces which will impact your leadership. Negative self-talk can be extremely damaging and can have your Imposter Syndrome feeling overwhelming.
After all, if you are telling yourself that you are incapable, useless or not cut out to lead, you will start to believe it. Then it will start to impact your leadership and how you deal with the world.
On the other hand, remaining positive will generally help you to see issues as challenges to be overcome, and you’ll also start to notice the good things that happen to you, instead of just the bad ones.
Some thoughts to help you reduce the impact of Imposter Syndrome
Our thoughts are powerful. Instead of telling yourself how stupid you are, try reminding yourself of the following statements. If it helps, print them out and keep them somewhere for your reference:
- You are not supposed to know everything. In fact, that’s impossible.
- You are not supposed to be the best at everything your team does. That’s why you have team members to actually do the detailed work.
- Remember that you were hired for a reason. People believed in you then, and they want you to do well now.
- Career progression means doing things you’ve never done before. The CEO didn’t start there. She probably started at the bottom, and worked her way up. In each new role, she had to do things she had never done before. Getting out of your comfort zone is important to your development.
- Other people can’t see inside your head. Just because you feel out of your depth, doesn’t mean everyone knows it. Many people will say you’re doing a good job, even if you feel insecure. Listen to them.
Try Keeping a Gratitude Journal
If you need to build a more positive mindset, you can also try keeping a gratitude journal.
“What is this hippie nonsense?”, I hear you shouting.
No, wait, hear me out. A gratitude journal can be a great way to train your brain to notice the positive aspects of your life.
Humans have a natural negativity bias. We tend to fear loss and pain more than we respond to positive factors.
In a particularly tough period of my career, I spent 6 months writing in a gratitude journal to make sure I picked out the positive aspects of my life at that time.
Each morning, I wrote 5 things that I was grateful for. Some of them were big (family, friends) and others were little (nice coffee). What I noticed was that over time, I instinctively started to notice the positive parts of life and work. It wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns, but I noticed my mindset making a positive shift.
I recommend giving it a try. It might take a while, but forcing your mind to think positively each day can help to drag you out of a negative mindset.
2. Step Back and Let Others Play Their Part
When we feel a bout of Imposter Syndrome, sometimes we feel like we should compensate for it by leading harder. This might mean taking charge and pretending to know things that we don’t.
Relax. Take a step back and let the people who know better take the lead. Stop trying to be “the boss” all the time.
Own up to it. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Let your team members take the lead on some things, so you don’t have to.
Leadership is about knowing when to lead, and also about knowing when it’s appropriate for others to show the way.
It’s worth also recognising what you can control and what you can’t. A nice tool to use for this is the concept of the Sphere of Control.
Related: You can read more about the Sphere of Control here: How Letting Go Will Help You Take Control.
Recognise the Value of Leadership
Instead of trying to control everything in your team or workplace, you should try to keep in mind the true value of your leadership role.
You won’t know every little detail of the subject you’re dealing with, or the work that your team does. But you still have a valuable role to play. Leaders are important because they:
- Provide oversight, fix issues and remove roadblocks, but they don’t do all the work.
- Provide direction. Leaders have a higher-level view of the playing field. You can see things that your team can’t. This helps you to lead them in the right direction.
- Facilitate processes to achieve outcomes. You might not know the details, but you can lead people through a structured process to achieve an outcome.
The point is, don’t feel like you need to know all the detail to add value. Even if you feel out of your depth, you can harness the knowledge of the people around you to achieve an outcome.
3. Ask For Help
Leadership can be lonely. It’s common to feel like you have nobody to talk to.
Often it’s not healthy to reveal all your darkest thoughts and feelings to your team, as it can cause them to lose confidence in your leadership. Likewise, you may not feel comfortable talking to your boss about your feelings, because you may believe it will undermine her confidence in you.
So what options do you have? Well, there are many!
For starters, you can talk to close colleagues, former colleagues, friends, family, coaches or mentors. Asking for advice, or simply using them as a sounding board for testing your thought process can be extremely valuable.
If you only rely on yourself, you are more vulnerable to negative thought patterns. Others are more likely be able to give you an impartial view of the world, especially when you’re stuck inside your own head.
Test Your Thinking With People Outside of Your Bubble
Recently I started a new role and needed advice on some commercial matters. I knew a little about the subject, but not a lot, so I wanted to test my thinking. I called a close former colleague of mine (who happens to run a commercial function) and asked her advice.
After our conversation, I felt much more confident in my approach. All it had taken was to test my thinking with an outside observer who wasn’t stuck in my head.
Don’t go it alone. People are available to help you. Build and use your networks and you’ll have a host of people who can assist. You can do the same when they come calling.
Use Imposter Syndrome as Your Ally
The point of this post is not to make you keep pushing ahead when you shouldn’t, oblivious to the consequences. Imposter Syndrome can be a helpful ally, telling you when you need to test your thinking or ask for advice.
People who ignore Imposter Syndrome completely might come unstuck when they discover they really don’t know what they’re doing.
When you feel like an imposter, test your thinking, ask for advice and use the experience of others to help you. Don’t let Imposter Syndrome stop you, but it’s best not to ignore it completely either.
Imposter Syndrome can have good leaders doubting themselves. A little doubt is OK, as long as it doesn’t see you taking a back seat, quitting or giving up.
To some degree, you’ll probably always have Imposter Syndrome sitting on your shoulder, whispering negative thoughts in your ear, especially when starting a new role or dealing with new challenges and situations.
“You’re not good enough”.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about”.
Over time, you’ll learn to do what I do.
You’ll test your thinking, gain confidence that you’re on the right path and then say, “Shut up, brain” and keep on leading.
Feeling Like An Imposter In Your Leadership Role? Try the Leadership Confidence Online Course.
Feel more comfortable and self-assured in your leadership role – simply click here to learn more about the course and enrol today.
Have you had a case of Imposter Syndrome? How did you handle it? Let us all know in the comments below or in the Thoughtful Leader Community!