Doubts – we all have them. It is almost impossible to imagine leading without questioning yourself from time-to-time, isn’t it? For most of us a recurring sense of self-doubt is simply part of the leadership package, but how do we know if we are dealing with a normal volume of critical inner thoughts versus wrestling with full-blown imposter syndrome?
In the last few weeks, several of my executive coaching clients have expressed concern that they might be suffering from imposter syndrome. These clients – male and female – are not baby leaders; rather they are seasoned corporate executives with lots of experience under their belts.
Let’s take Joan for example. Joan is an experienced leader in a healthcare organization and relatively recently has ascended to an even more senior role. She now attends executive leadership team meetings, is responsible for more than a handful of direct reports and has a large team of people who roll up underneath her leadership. When we last met, she asked me for coaching around her doubts and said she had been thinking she was suffering from imposter syndrome. She expressed concern about her ability to execute in her new role and was wondering if it was “normal” to have doubts in a position like hers. As importantly, she wanted to know how to move past her nagging doubts and concerns.
Joan’s questions, along with those of my other clients, prompted me to look more deeply into imposter syndrome so I could better coach clients through their doubts when those arise. The American Psychological Association defines imposter syndrome as “a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.”
As I read this definition, the lawyer in me went into action parsing through the words in an effort to truly understand whether my clients’ doubts were typical expressions of the innate inner critical voice we all have or were something more sinister. The first thing that I noticed was that imposter syndrome requires a “pattern of behavior.” Doubting yourself when you first take on a new role and are perhaps overwhelmed with everything there is to learn does not constitute a pattern of behavior.
The other thing that jumped out at me was the word “persistent.” Joan has doubts, but like many of us, her doubts are episodic rather than persistent. In other words, something triggers a doubt and then we work though it or resolve it. The doubt does not persist.
The definition also refers to doubting your accomplishments. While my clients say they wonder if they are up to the task in a new leadership role, they do not typically doubt the accomplishments they have made in their other roles to date.
Finally, the definition points to an “internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.” While my clients typically will say they fear failure or not doing a good enough job in their roles, they do not generally fear being exposed as a fraud. In other words, they recognize that there are reasons they are in their current roles and while those roles may feel daunting, they do not feel like they are wholly undeserving of being there.
Even after parsing through the definition, it is clear to me that whether a leader has doubts or is suffering from a full-blown case of imposter syndrome, the next question is always, “What do I do about this?” “How do I get past the doubts and fears so I can lead?”
There are several things you can do if you find yourself in the land of self-doubt. First, remember what you’ve accomplished to date and acknowledge yourself fully for those achievements. Remind yourself of the path that has led you to the role you are now in. This is not a fluke; rather it is the next stop on the path you have been walking for quite some time.
It is also important to remember that no one (not even your predecessor) executes perfectly in a leadership role. Perfectionism can give rise to some very heavy self-doubt and can seriously undermine your ability to lead. Remember that excellence is a worthy goal but perfection is an unattainable objective that will derail you.
You may also find it helpful to talk with someone about your doubts. Whether you turn to a coach, a mentor or a trusted colleague, discussing your doubts can diminish their power over you. It is amazing how simply saying something out loud can make it seem less significant than it was when it was inside your head!
Leadership is serious business and hard work. A leader without doubts is likely a leader who does not know what he does not know. Having doubts is part of the process, but you don’t have to let those doubts derail the great things you can accomplish in your role.
What are some of your tried and true strategies for keeping your doubts from overtaking you?