Leadership, doubt and humility

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Do you ever feel secretly inadequate?  I don’t mean the confusion of not quite understanding what’s going on in a busy and demanding world.  I mean feeling out of your depth, bewildered and doubtful as to whether you can do what is asked of you in your leadership role?  Or more accurately, a deep-seated and yet suppressed and secret feeling that really – you’re not up to the job?

I have.  My presenting behaviour, my ‘brand’ if you like, is confident, assertive, and assured.  I’m sure some people might even turn the volume up on those words and call me over-confident and maybe sometimes even rude.  These are behaviours I’ve been working on for years where I try and manage the thin boundary between genuine passion and unfortunate arrogance.  However, my internal experience is different.  Sometimes I look at the expectations people have of me, and I think ‘I’m just not up to this!’  I don’t feel like this all the time – but when things are tough and my resources are low I can find myself rocked and uncertain.

am i good enough
‘Am I good enough?’

If sometimes you feel like me – that you might not have what it takes – then we’re not alone. This feeling is called the Imposter Syndrome – and it’s completely normal. During my leadership development and coaching practice I’ve worked closely with numerous managers, leaders and fellow developers.  Pretty much every one has at some point said ‘I’m only one page ahead of the others’ or ‘I feel that at any moment I’m going to get found out for the fraud I know myself to be.’

Despite apparent evidence of one’s competence, when the Imposter Syndrome hits you’ll remain convinced that you do not deserve the success you’ve achieved, dismissing this inwardly as luck or fortuitous timing.  Psychologists would call it a phenomenon where successful people fail to internalise their accomplishments, unable to believe they are themselves responsible for, or deserving of, the position they’ve achieved.

I’ve met some truly brilliant people who experience this hindering internal pattern.  One in particular comes to mind – a bright and brilliant talent who is by everyone’s estimation a deserving young leader full of real promise.  By everyone’s estimation that is, other than her own.

Almost every leader I’ve worked with as a coach has expressed this personal doubt.  I say almost every leader – there have been a few that were justifiably nervous and rightly aware they were out of their depth – living examples of the Peter Principle where employees in a hierarchy will be successively promoted until they reach their level of incompetence.  But these weren’t the worrying ones – they were usually helped to find more fitting employment – sometimes uncomfortably, but normally appropriately and with compassion.

No, the really disappointing leaders were the couple that had no qualms at all of their capability.  Is it that they were so ‘complete’ and personally confident that they didn’t need to doubt themselves?  Quite the opposite – they were the real imposters who serendipitously found themselves in positions of influence but lacked the humility and insight to work reflexively on their own practice, to seek genuine feedback and take a proper look in the leadership mirror.

So, assuming you’re one of the majority of leaders, of people, who experience (or suffer) the Imposter Syndrome – what can you do?  All I can suggest is the same as I have suggested to clients, and the same as I suggest to myself when the feeling hits.

  1. Believe that it’s normal.  Take a look around the office at those you admire, and know they’ll experience this too.
  2. Ask for feedback.  Since the Imposter Syndrome is really a denial of the realities of your own efficacy, seek out others who can give you a more dispassionate view.  They’ll probably tell you you’re not perfect – but that you deserve the success you’ve earned.
  3. Save up positive feedback – and use it when you need it.  Be it a patient’s ‘thank you’, a colleague’s ‘well done’, a manager’s recognition or a good appraisal.  Some people keep a ‘My plaudits’ file on their computer offering a mine of restorative nuggets to be excavated in times of need.

Oh, and one entreaty.  If we assume that most people at some time or other experience this feeling of doubt – let’s help them out.  Let’s pass praise around our worlds freely and liberally.  I’m not talking about adopting a leadership style of complacent acceptance of poor performance – quite the opposite – I’m all for challenging (fairly, compassionately and very directly) those that truly aren’t up to the job.  The majority of colleagues though are talented yet self-doubting people doing the best they can. An encouraging word and a positive stroke could be just the reinforcement they need to keep their imposter at bay.

14 thoughts on “Leadership, doubt and humility

  1. thanks for this Chris, very timely and reassuring! Love the save up positive feedback idea! And the emphasis on giving feedback. I always think of when i was a school nurse and we used to discuss 5 positive strokes to balance out 1 negative one in the emotional ‘bank account’ of children.

    1. Just getting my notes together torun a session for the European Mentoring and Coaching Council Yorkshire brabch at Magna in Rotherham this evening, and a friend put me onto this blog. I am finding that a significant proportion of my NHS and other clients are reporting impostor syndrome. I notice Chris’s bio at the end of his post is all positive: some people suggest that as a society we exacerbate impostor syndrome by telling our story with only the good bits. Am I a successful author or am I someone who had a book of readigns that I had assembeled turned down by Sage? Both of course.

  2. Thanks, Chris – So true – particularly about sometimes feeling only one step ahead. Would definitely agree with giving praise where due – I have sometimes been surprised by the impact that it has had on others… Perhaps we do not do it enough…

  3. Interesting discussion and fits with a discussion I had with some peer support workers today about people often do not know how to respond to praise and may look for an alternative meaning. maybe the emphasis needs to be on both the give and the get elements.

  4. Good discussion – I agree with Sinead we don’t always give praise where its due – when a colleague mentions something positive about another colleague to me I always make sure I pass that back to the person concerned – always well received, possibly because it demonstrates a message shared more widely in the organisation

  5. Chris
    I recently attended a research day at Hallam Uni for coaches and mentors. The Imposter Syndrone was a topic discussed lead by David Meggingson.
    Interesting topic. Thanks for this.

  6. Nice article Chris. I recall this being a commonly discussed topic amongst newly qualified doctors when I was at that stage.

    Interestingly I thought of it recently when experiencing performance challenges. As a CEO who came up via an unconventional (medical) route, I found myself wondering whether I lack some of the necessary competences, and that I somehow got appointed without this being noticed!

    Thanks, Mark

    1. Thanks for the comment Mark (and all) about this blog. It’s not just new doc’s, or medical CEOs – it all of us from time to time that doubt our capabilities. Doubt is normal I think, and although uncomfortable, it’s probably useful and helpful in keeping us grounded.

  7. Thank you for writing your article. Understanding this Syndrome and its existence is helpful for me and my colleagues.

  8. I like this idea of the ‘imposter’ – it captures the essence of how I and many others I know and work with feel at times. The imposter could be a useful term to help people think about the consequences on themselves and others if they do not have a positive mindset – seeing situations as a threat rather than a challenge for example. We also find that feedback and reflection that is affirmative and actionable to be very helpful.

  9. Thanks Chris – nice perspective. What can also help is to explore the dangers of certainty in leadership, an inability to listen, explore, learn, change our minds, be vulnerable etc – We might be valuing our doubt and insecurity not just as normal, but as an asset to thoughtful leadership?

  10. Chris, thank you for this article, i have personally felt this for many years and thought it was just me. I couldnt understand why I was recently shortlisted for a Top leader award by my Team in my Trust.

    I am just starting my journey on the Mary Seacole leadership developement training and already felt “can i do this” but just reading your blog and that of Yvonne Coghill – Yes I can and the main challenge is overcoming self doubt. I have to step back, look what ive done,and enjoy the journey with the rest of the group and my tutor.

  11. I have suffered with this, having not had a clinical background, however after brilliant coaching I now use this In my OD role and admit to it! It’s amazing how many people are relieved that there not the only ones who don’t have all the answers – it breaks down the silo barriers and lets leaders really talk! X I’m an imposter and it’s a strength!! X

  12. Thank you for this insightful article; I can see now, how reflexivity is crucial to good performance and continuous improvement of my leadership skills – and a natural aspect of the process is acknowledging where I could have done better. I have met leaders who are in ‘unconscious incompetence’, and have failed to reflect, but it is a learning process and I now assist others where I can.