By Emily Johnston
Imposter syndrome. If you are a leader, or a human, or a human who is leading, you have probably experienced this in some form or other. It’s there in the moments when you think:
How the heck did I get myself into this position? It must be luck!
I feel like a child playing a game — surely they can see past the costume I’m wearing?
Why are they trusting me with this? Can’t they see I’m totally out of my depth?
And in these moments, how do you look on the outside? Cool, calm, collected. The perfect picture of a leader in control.
So often as leaders (or as humans in general) we put ourselves in the position where we feel that there is no room for error, otherwise we might be caught out. Eventually people might realise we’re a fraud, that we’re just faking it. That we are just pretending to be good enough, to be deserving of the position we’re in.
This is imposter syndrome: despite our achievements, skills and capabilities, we still believe on some level that we’ve only in our position due to luck. And eventually we’ll be discovered for what we really are — or what we are not.
The classic image of the leader as the all powerful, all knowing superhuman really doesn’t help here. No wonder so many of us feel out of our depth when we step into a leadership position.
We put ourselves under immense pressure to paint ourselves into a totally unrealistic picture of ‘a good leader’, and to live up to others expectations of us to do this. Or at least, the story we have in our head about what others expect from us. Struggling with imposter syndrome just seems to be the inevitable consequence.
So how do we get ourselves out of this toxic cycle of never feeling we are good enough to fulfil an impossible to fulfil role?
Firstly it helps to notice when and how it shows up. For me, imposter syndrome comes in different forms.
Who am I as an English-speaking Australian to be building a company in Germany?
Who am I as a 29 year old to be offering programs on leadership development?
Who am I to be running a company at all, with my non-existent background in business and my poor command of spreadsheets?
When it strikes, there’s a couple of things I do. Here are some of my strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome.
1. Stop trying to be perfect
First things first, the equation does not go: if I am perfect then I will no longer feel like a fraud.
It doesn’t, because being perfect is not a thing. It doesn’t exist.
I know you know that already. Yet I also know that I know that already too, and still I find myself striving to do things 100 percent right and not make mistakes.
Knowing and embodying are two very different things.
Accepting that we are not perfect takes a lot of practice to live by. It’s complicated because we also know that striving to do well is generally a positive thing to do. Not, however, if it results in measuring our worthiness — as a human and leader — in achievements accomplished and mistakes not made.
So let’s just sit with the fact that being perfect is not an option.
What is possible, however, is to grow an inner sense of worthiness. If we feel we are enough, that we are worthy of being in the position we are in, then we can own, rather than hide, the things we struggle with or don’t yet know. We can ask for help without feeling like a failure and we can proactively look for ways to learn or grow without feeling that we should already know it.
While we’re at it, we can also start by deconstructing the stereotype of the perfect leader.
There is simply not one right way to be a leader, or even five right ways. Yes, there are certain skills and capacities which support us in our work as leaders. Yet the options for how to lead and be a leader are as diverse as the contexts we are leading in and as unique as we are.
Let’s stop setting ourselves up to fail by setting goals which are impossible to achieve. You are not perfect, I am not perfect, no other person you think is perfect is perfect. Let’s celebrate that with a big swig of relief and a cheers to being human.
2. What’s already working well?
Secondly, I try to focus on things I am doing well, no matter how small they might seem or how hard it might be to identify them.
In tougher moments I have actually started writing these things down so that I can look at them if I’m feeling particularly impostery or spending too much energy on what’s not working well.
Taking the time to think about these things and write them down can be a powerful practice.
Identifying our strengths is extremely important to feel empowered, to know how we can contribute and to grow our sense of worthiness. It helps to feel more ok with the things we are less good at or still learning, and to not compare ourselves as much to others.
It also gives us insights into our leadership style and superpowers.
As uncomfortable as it can feel to ask, one of the best ways to explore our strengths and leadership style is to ask others around us.
Very often the strengths others see in us are things we don’t even notice because for us they are too obvious or don’t seem particularly noteworthy.
We need others to help us see and appreciate our strengths — both what we are already doing well and where there is potential for us to grow. Asking for this kind of feedback and then being open to listen to it is not easy. Yet it can really support us to grow in our worthiness.
3. Where is there room to grow?
Thirdly, I set myself learning goals. Everyone has room to grow, so it’s helpful to acknowledge these things rather than trying to hide them.
These learning goals can be on a personal or professional level, and can encompass specific skills or knowledge I want to gain, as well as personal capacities I want to develop.
Once I’ve picked which direction I want to grow in, I look for opportunities to learn — whether it’s through reading on a topic, practicing a skill or taking on projects where I’ll get a chance to learn something new.
Doing this means I can take ownership of my growth areas and be proactive in developing myself — rather than reacting out of shame, fear or hiding my inner imposter.
Of course, this is not always easy. Sometimes it feels like I’m standing at the foot of a mountain of impossible to learn things that I will surely never understand or be capable of doing.
In those moments it helps me to look back and see how far I’ve already come and how much I’ve already learnt, especially the things that once seemed impossible to achieve. This reminds me that I will know more as I go on and that I can trust in my ability to learn and grow.
It can also be helpful to share these goals with others so that they can support us to work towards them, as well as to hold ourselves accountable. This is actually something we do together in our team at Unity Effect.
We set both personal and work-related goals and make them visible for the rest of the team so that we can support each other to find learning opportunities and reflect together on our progress. This is a really nice practice in internal capacity building — within ourselves and the team.
You’re not alone
Lastly, it always helps me to remind myself: everyone feels this from time to time. Even powerful badasses like Michele Obama.
So many of us humans go around making things up and winging it and acting like we’ve got it all together. And somehow we manage to fool each other into thinking we really have got it all together — probably because we’re too focused on our own performance to notice someone else’s plot holes.
Isn’t it exhausting to keep up that act?
Feeling like an imposter occasionally doesn’t mean we’re actually not good enough, it just means we’re human.
When we are courageous to talk about our own challenges and doubts, we break the cycle.
By taking ownership of our growth areas and being honest in the process, we create the space for others to not be perfect too.
We let others know that they are not alone, that it’s ok to be an imperfect human and be a leader at the same time.
That’s a real act of leadership right there.