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Overcoming Our Inner Imposters: Why Fostering Vulnerability is Key to Effective Leadership


We have all felt it at one time or another - that nagging feeling of being an "imposter" unworthy of our position and achievements. Despite outer success, internally we doubt our abilities and qualifications. This "imposter phenomenon" significantly impacts leadership, yet it is rarely discussed openly. As leaders, showing vulnerability is difficult but necessary to foster trust and address inner imposters.


Today we will explore how the imposter phenomenon strengthens leadership by promoting self-awareness, empowering others, and cultivating authentic relationships.


The Pervasiveness of Inner Imposters


Research shows the feeling of being an imposter is pervasive, affecting 70% of people (Clance & Imes, 1978). However, it disproportionately impacts those in high-achieving roles and industries that value confidence, competence and success, such as leadership positions. Psychologists Clance and Imes first coined the term in 1978, defined as "an internal experience of intellectual phoniness" where successful individuals are unable to internalize their achievements and persistently fear being exposed as frauds.


It is a psychological pattern that involves 5 core components (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011; Vergauwe et al., 2015):


  • Attributing success to external factors like luck rather than ability

  • Persistently doubting one's accomplishments and skills

  • Fearing they will soon be "found out" as frauds

  • Feeling they have fooled others into believing they are more competent than they perceive themselves to be

  • Persistently striving to prove themselves in an endless pursuit of perfectionism


While it affects people across gender, race and socioeconomic status, research indicates imposter feelings may be amplified for those in minority groups facing greater external barriers and self-doubt due to unconscious biases (Cokley et al., 2017; Parkman, 2016).


Imposters and Leadership


For leaders who experience the imposter phenomenon, it can significantly undermine performance and well-being if left unaddressed. Beyond the universal self-doubt and fear of failure that all leaders face, imposters carry an extra burden of internally questioning whether they truly deserve their position of authority. This can foster increased stress, anxiety, depression and burnout (Clance & O'Toole, 1987; Vergauwe et al., 2015).


Leaders feeling like imposters may exhibit behaviors that ultimately hinder their effectiveness, such as (Langford & Clance, 1993; Leary et al., 2000):


  • Avoiding recognition and praise due to feeling unworthy

  • Constantly taking on more work to prove their worthiness

  • Micromanaging others due to lack of confidence in delegation

  • Being less innovative and ambitious due to fear of failure

  • Difficulty providing constructive criticism or making difficult decisions

  • Lacking consistency in communication and decision-making


By addressing inner imposters head-on, leaders can mitigate these detrimental impacts on their teams and better cultivate an environment of empowerment, continuous learning and resilience.


The Benefits of Showing Vulnerability


Promoting vulnerability has been shown to improve performance, increase cooperation and foster stronger interpersonal connections that build trust (Brown, 2018). However, for leaders struggling with imposter feelings, showing vulnerability can be difficult due to fearing it will undermine their authority or highlight their perceived flaws.


Yet research indicates leaders who share their vulnerability and make mistakes in a spirit of continuous learning actually gain respect from their teams (McNulty et al., 2018; Mishra & Mishra, 2018). By addressing inner struggles openly, leaders model that imperfection and growth are valued over perceived perfectionism. This allows others to feel safer sharing their own vulnerabilities, mistakes and developmental needs.


Rather than undermining leadership, clearly communicating fallibility fosters a psychologically safe culture where people can improve through open feedback and collective problem-solving versus hiding errors due to fear of reprimand. Addressing vulnerability also creates resonant authentic relationships where people feel seen, inspired and empowered to develop their fullest potential (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Kouzes & Posner, 2017).


Strategies for Overcoming Inner Imposters


There are specific strategies leaders can adopt to acknowledge and overcome their inner imposters through fostering a mindset of vulnerability, self-awareness and empowerment:


  1. Externalize imposter feelings: By recognizing the imposter phenomenon as a common psychological pattern versus a personal flaw, leaders can make the inner critic an "it" rather than "me". This detaches from the negative self-talk and reduces rumination.

  2. Challenge negative thought patterns: Leaders can actively question imposter assumptions through examining evidence contrary to thoughts like "I don't deserve this". They can recognize attributions to luck versus skills are rarely accurate.

  3. Reframe success as a learning journey: Rather than viewing achievements as final proof of worthiness, leaders see their role as a growth opportunity. They accept ongoing development versus seeking impossible perfection.

  4. Share vulnerabilities with trusted peers: Discussing imposter feelings with understanding others who provide perspective helps leaders see they are not alone in their doubts and mistakes. This fosters resilience through social support.

  5. Practice self-care and self-compassion: Leaders must safeguard their well-being to ensure resilience amidst imposter feelings. This involves minimizing unhelpful self-criticism through compassionate self-talk and maintaining healthy work-life practices.

  6. Develop others through mentoring: Paying skills and mentoring junior colleagues helps leaders shift focus to empowering growth in others versus ruminating on self-doubts. It builds confidence through contributing value beyond themselves.

  7. Celebrate small wins and acknowledge progress: Leaders must learn to internalize achievements by consciously recognizing gains, however incremental. Doing regular “wins reviews” emphasizing continual development counteracts imposter thinking.

  8. Normalize mistakes and model growth: Leaders authentically share mistakes and lessons learned to create a culture where errors are seen as opportunities versus judgment. This fosters brave spaces where people can improve through vulnerability.


By adopting these practical strategies, leaders directly tackle negative thought patterns while cultivating an organizational environment that values sharing weaknesses to strengthen performance for all.


Industry Examples


These approaches have been effectively applied across industries, with several noteworthy examples.


At Bridgewater Associates, the world's largest hedge fund, founder Ray Dalio developed the concept of "radical transparency" where all weaknesses and issues must be exposed to invoke thoughtful feedback and constant betterment. This countered internal critic tendencies by modeling mistakes as opportunities (Dalio, 2017).


In creative fields like Pixar Animation, vulnerability is seen as integral to innovation through a culture of “comprehensive critique” where staff provide blunt yet caring critique of each other's work (Catmull & Wallace, 2014). This allows addressing imposter feelings through collaborative vs isolated problem-solving.


At Netflix, no job titles are assigned and all are expected to both give and receive critical feedback openly on projects. This fosters a learning culture where people focus on continuous growth above concerns about competency image (Reed, 2021).


Across contexts, a common thread is that directly addressing vulnerability strengthened performance culture by cultivating bravery, collaboration, trust and resilience over perceived perfectionism. Leaders show inner critic tendencies need not hold anyone back from contributing value through ongoing experimentation and community support.


Conclusion


While rarely discussed in leadership contexts, our inner imposters present very real barriers to effectiveness that must be tackled head-on. By fostering vulnerability as a core strength rather than weakness, leaders can overcome self-doubt and model that growth stems from sharing flaws above hiding them. Practical strategies paired with culture change can normalize mistakes and cultivate support for all to reach their fullest potential through ongoing learning. Leadership lies not in being mistake-free but in embracing constant betterment through brave transparency and collective empowerment. Overall, openly addressing vulnerability is essential for personal development, team performance and authentic connection in organizations.


References


  • Avolio, B. J., & Gardner, W. L. (2005). Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 315–338. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2005.03.001

  • Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts. Random House.

  • Catmull, E., & Wallace, A. (2014). Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. Random House.

  • Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006

  • Clance, P. R., & O'Toole, M. A. (1987). The imposter phenomenon: An internal barrier to empowerment and achievement. Women & Therapy, 6(3), 51-64. https://doi.org/10.1300/J015V06N03_05

  • Cokley, K., McClain, S., Enciso, A., & Martinez, M. (2013). An examination of the impact of minority status stress and impostor feelings on the mental health of diverse ethnic minority college students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 41(2), 82–95. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-1912.2013.00029.x

  • Dalio, R. (2017). Principles: Life and work. Simon & Schuster.

  • Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2017). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations (6th ed.). Jossey-Bass.

  • Langford, J., & Clance, P. R. (1993). The imposter phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 30(3), 495–501. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-3204.30.3.495

  • Leary, M. R., Patton, K. M., Orlando, A. E., & Funk, W. W. (2000). The impostor phenomenon: Self-perceptions, reflected appraisals, and interpersonal strategies. Journal of Personality, 68(4), 725–756. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-6494.00114

  • McNulty, M. C., Eby, S., Berg, B., & Reavis, J. (2021). The imposter phenomenon in nurse practitioner students: Implications for perceptions of vulnerability. Online Journal of Health Ethics, 17(1), Article 2. https://doi.org/10.18785/ojhe.1701.02

  • Mishra, A. K., & Mishra, K. E. (2018). Trust and leadership: Role of leader transparency in building trust. International Journal of Organization Theory & Behavior, 21(3), 203-217.

  • Parkman, A. (2016). The imposter phenomenon in higher education: Incidence and impact. Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice, 16(1), 51–60.

  • Reed, D. (2021). Beyond the imposter syndrome: Critical success factors to prevent feelings of fraudulence and cultivate leadership presence. People + Strategy, 44(1), 36-40.

  • Sakulku, J., & Alexander, J. (2011). The impostor phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), 73-92.

  • Vergauwe, J., Wille, B., Feys, M., De Fruyt, F., & Anseel, F. (2015). Fear of being exposed: The trait-relatedness of the impostor phenomenon and its relevance in the work context. Journal of Business and Psychology, 30(3), 565–581. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-014-9382-5

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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