I was recently talking with colleagues about all things personal and leadership development and the topic of The Imposter Syndrome came up. The Imposter Syndrome – that belief that we don’t really belong in our role, that we don’t have the skills and experience needed and that, at any time, we will be found out for the frauds we are. I wasn’t surprised that many hadn’t heard of it, that some had heard of it but didn’t know much about it, but that all of them knew what I was talking about. We were pondering how and why it happens. I’m fairly sure that the trigger goes way back to our childhoods, but I shared my director superpower story.
Early in my working life, I would sit as a medical secretary, see the Directorate Managers and Directors and think, “they must have some kind of superpower to do that job”. I believed that they were either very special people born with a superior level of intelligence and ability or that they’d acquired some amazing knowledge that made them able to do that job. I aspired to do their role, I knew I was intelligent, but I didn’t know if I had that secret ingredient.
As my career developed and I began to get promoted, I started on leadership development programmes. I learnt a lot, experienced even more, but I hadn’t yet found out what that secret power was; no one had whispered the code in my ear.
I found myself in an operations manager role and can distinctly remember waiting to be ‘called out’; I still didn’t have the superpower. But, I seemed to do ok at it and moved onto the next role. I managed to become a Directorate Manager without being handed the magical leadership scroll of knowledge but was certain that I was simply blagging it and that I’d make a massive mistake or that someone would spot that I just wasn’t up to the role. That Imposter Syndrome really had a hold on me.
When I was an Assistant Director, two very important things happened to me:
- Firstly, I started to interact more with Directors and, whilst some were really impressive, some were very, very normal. I remember leaving an introductory meeting with one Director and thinking, “well, if he can be a Director I’m damn sure I can be one too”. So, if there were superpowers being handed out to Directors, not all of them were in the right line.
- Secondly, I was successful in securing a place on a national leadership development programme and this gave me access to a coach. Amongst many other things, my coach gave a name to what I was experiencing; it was her that first told me about the Imposter Syndrome. It was very common, particularly in women, and, best of all, it didn’t mean that I was incompetent.
Since then, I’ve gone on to other leadership positions, usually newly developed roles and often in newly formed organisations, and, whilst I can’t claim to never experience the Imposter Syndrome anymore, I can control it better. I now know that there is no secret code or ingredient; that someone doesn’t whisper the magical words in your ear, that senior managers don’t have superpowers. They are just normal people, who make mistakes, have fears and desires, but great leaders have the ability to shine lights on their teams and support them to achieve.
I love this TED talk by Drew Dudley. It reminds me of times when people have mentioned something I’ve said or done that I’ve forgotten but meant a lot to them. It reminds me of the times when I’ve shown my 14-year-old daughter that people look to her, her actions and reactions, before deciding how to act themselves, and have asked her to consider what impact she wants to make on her world. It reminds me that everyone, even leaders, needs feedback to help them grow and to fill them up. It reminds me that leaders aren’t roles or job titles; they are people who inspire, challenge, amplify and create.