Two leaders spoke in quiet voices as if someone could hear their private phone conversation. One was an accomplished author who traveled the world speaking and training prominent CEOs on how to be more effective in leading their teams, the other a training and development professional. Both admitted that they struggle with Imposter Syndrome. On the outside, they have been celebrated for their accomplishments, yet on the inside they don’t believe the accolades. In the conversation, the author said, “even though I travel the world speaking on leadership, I wake up every single day with self-doubt, questioning my validity.”
Many leaders are familiar with the struggle caused by Imposter Syndrome. In one setting they are confident contributors to their business and company goals, respected for their work and seen by others as accomplished and professional. In another, they shrink back feeling uneasy about how to show up in a meeting or they may hesitate when dealing with a new situation. This temporary loss identity is destabilizing for the leader and the team.
High performing leaders are especially vulnerable to Imposter Syndrome. They have a large capacity to lead and make things happen and they can usually out-work, out-plan and out-produce those around them. They know that deep inside, they are capable of much more, even if it’s not required of them. What the world sees as a win, they see as a job that could have been done better. In the NBCnews.com article by Danielle Page, she states that many high performers are uncomfortable with acknowledging their success, and that 70% of the U.S. population has experienced the syndrome.
What makes a leader vulnerable to the Imposter Syndrome?
There are many ways to answer this question. I present that Imposter Syndrome is fueled by a lack of personal and professional clarity when it comes to identity. Having clarity of identity is the ballast that keeps a leader from being overtaken by a shadowy-shifting syndrome that seeks to incorrectly inform belief, behavior and action.
What happens inside of leaders when one minute they are confident and the very next minute they are insecure? Their identities become destabilized. They change based on who they are talking to, on what they are feeling or perhaps even how they feel they should be coming across. David Wilkinson, the Director of the Oxford Review calls this Identity Work.
- “Identity work refers to any situation where someone needs to modify their identity to be accepted, listened to, and engaged with. In effect, rather than just being who they are and acting/talking/ relating in ways they would prefer to do normally, people engaged in identity work find they have to adjust their behavior and identity to be accepted.”—David Wilkinson
They incorrectly think they need outer acceptance to give them inner approval. As a matter of habit, they practice “magical thinking” and act as if they can read minds or discern the intention of those around them. They hold inner conversations about what they think people are thinking about them. This magical thinking is ruthless, painful and false. Inner policing will not keep you in line and ensure that you will be liked by all. In fact, it may do the opposite. Your colleagues and your team will see who you are in one setting and notice how you change in another.
The need for external approval keeps you in flux from minute to minute. Instead of being a thermostat and setting the temperature in the room, you take the temperature of the room and act accordingly. It’s not the approval of others that is most destructive in identity instability. It’s disapproving yourself and the worry it causes. Having a stable awareness of your identity is crucial to successful leadership, not only externally, but especially internally.
There is a scene in the movie Spider Man where the superhero gets covered in a menacing goo that influences his personality in a negative way. At first, he doesn’t realize the destruction he is causing in his work and relationships. But when he does finally see it, he fights to get free and return to his real identity, but it’s not easy.
Every internal crises we experience is ultimately a crises of identity. The more we reinforce an untrue identity, the harder it is to break free.
Several years ago, I was giving a presentation to a room of about 40 CEOs. Everything went great, nothing but positive feedback came my way. After the event, while they were giving me a standing ovation, I was in the bathroom in my room, bent over the toilet, sick to my stomach from a magnesium deficiency. The attendant helping me realized that I was in a dangerous situation and knew I needed to get to the hospital. I thought of the leaders I had just left and wondered, “what if they see me being wheeled out on a stretcher?” I didn’t want them to see me as weak or incapable. I didn’t want them to think negatively of me or judge me.
I was bothered by the Imposter Syndrome that told me people would disapprove of me if they saw me in a moment of weakness. The truth is, they probably would have had compassion and not thought any less of me at all.
How do you conquer Imposter Syndrome and Identity Instability?
Recognize it for what it is.
The Imposter Syndrome shows up as internal questions of doubt, shame and fear. Internally you may hear:
· “I did a great job in securing the new company. Now with two more to go to meet our goal, what if I can’t do it again?”
· “Why did they pick me to speak at the conference? What if I’m not smart enough?”
· “One day, I’m sure my team will find out that I’m not as together as they think I am.”
· “Maybe, if I associate with the popular leaders, people will think I’m one of them.”
· “Am I good enough?”
Challenge the Thoughts.
· “I did a great job on the presentation, I’m going to review my process to be sure I’m equally prepared for the next one.”
· “They picked me because I’m qualified to speak about this topic. I don’t need to be the best in the world at it, because what I share is useful to the attendees. That’s what matters most.”
· “I’m human and the more my team sees that I’m comfortable with my own shortcomings and that I don’t always have it together, the easier it will be for all of us to experience trust building transparency between us.”
· “It’s not my association with others that makes me effective, it’s the time, energy and dedication that I put into the planning and the details of my work that makes a difference.”
· “I am exactly who I need to be to do the job before me. When I need help, I will ask for it. Yes, I’m good enough and I’m working to continue to improve.”
Disarm the Menace
Disarm the Imposter Syndrome by doing what’s necessary to stand strong in who you really are and reconnect to your story. Recently, an incredible CEO I work with who is literally a world changer, faced the fact that he was lacking self-confidence in specific situations. As we continued our dialogue, it became clear to him that he was compromising on his value of transparency. He had a rough background and with the exception of a few people, his history was hidden from the company. He realized his lack of self-confidence was in part, coming from a disconnection from himself. He was ready to make a change. He is now committed to become open about his story, with prudence, of course. He is learning to share about his history or where he came from and connect the dots of how this influenced his ability to have a significant impact on the lives of so many people.
Standing on the truth will serve as an anchor in your identity.
Know Who You Are
In Matthew 4:6, the adversary says to Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your food against a stone.”
The Imposter voice was speaking to Jesus in that exchange. Notice what he said to Him: “If you are the son of God.” He wanted Jesus to question His identity because he knew if he could get Jesus to question His identity, he could get Him to question His purpose and value. However, Jesus was not tempted. He was firmly established in His identity and did not flinch when tempted by the devil. The adversary knew what was written in the scriptures. He knew that his statement of “if you are the son of God” was dead in the water, because Jesus did not doubt His identity.
The adversary comes to you the same way. He uses the word “if” to throw you off the mark. “If you are a good CEO, Owner, Leader…, If you know what you are doing, If you don’t screw up, If…” He inserts doubt to see if you will take the bait. When you do, he keeps talking and questions your competence, your wisdom your ability to lead consistently. The biggest threat to the adversary is to know who you are and to speak the truth the moment the negative thoughts come. Jesus did not waste time scrutinizing His identity, He stood firm and confidently spoke the truth.
Beat the Odds
Even though 70% of the U.S. population experiences the Imposter Syndrome and an unstable identity because of it, you are not bound by this statistic. Like Jesus, knowing and believing in your God-given identity will be a guard for you. Being firmly rooted and established in your identity is based on God’s love and acceptance of you. Out of that God-confidence emerges your purpose, which gives you courage to stay in the game, exercise super-strength resilience and stay true to your mission.
If you need clarity about your accomplishments, reach out to a supportive friend or mentor for an honest assessment of you. To combat Imposter Syndrome, shift out of measuring how much you have delivered and focus more about who you are as you are delivering. In a “what have you done for me lately” world, you will most likely feel like you have fallen short, delivered less than hoped for and/or experience a form of amnesia around what you have done because of what still needs to be completed. When they give you feedback on what they see in you, believe them. This will shore you up in truth, reminding you of who you are and help you to lead courageously going forward. Trust that they have your success at heart. In her TEDx talk, Lolly Daskal explains that we cannot lead others without first leading from within. Leadership is an internal positioning that shows up in external actions.
Two stories to illustrate this:
The first comes from a client I spoke to today. He was getting down on himself because he felt like he wasn’t getting anywhere. In preparation for our monthly business coaching session, he completed a prep form. The first question asks: “What are your key accomplishments since our last meeting?” He couldn’t believe the list that formed as he allowed himself time to reflect on the past 30 days. He had an incorrect view of his accomplishments and didn’t realize just how much he was getting done.
If you start feeling like you’re spinning your wheels, instead of hitting the gas harder, schedule 30 minutes to regroup and take an honest assessment of your progress. In doing so, you’ll protect yourself from that creepy imposter dude who wants to steal your joy and bury you by telling you that you’re not enough.
A second story comes from a leader who is highly successful by the world’s standards, however his marriage was in a tough spot and he was not taking good care of himself. Two of the most important parts of his life – his health and his marriage, were suffering. As I continued working with him, he was eager to see change. Finally, one night over dinner I quietly but firmly said to him, “right now you are trying to manage everything. To become what you want to become, you will need to stop managing and start leading. You can’t lead your business until you learn to lead your family and you can’t lead your family until you learn to lead yourself.” It was a watershed moment for both of us. I was terrified of what might happen as a result of speaking those words. But for the first time, my client had someone in his life who was more concerned about him than the money he was paying me. He trusted the words because they came from a heart that believed in him enough to speak truth to him. He is now, not just leading himself; he is also leading his family and his business. His talk is his walk. The creepy imposter dude was fired!
Standing firm in your identity and resisting the Imposter Syndrome does not mean that you won’t find yourself in uncomfortable situations like the one I found myself in after the training. It does mean that you have a ballast to keep you anchored so if you drift off, you can quickly course correct.
Be proactive and dedicate time to cultivate your understanding of who you are personally and professionally. Instead of battling against the leader you are afraid you are, become the leader you want to be! Give yourself permission to enjoy your successes, embrace and learn from your failures and keep moving forward. The Imposter Dude only has the power you give to it. Armed with these new tools, what are you going to tell your Imposter Dude the next time he shows up?
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