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Your Biggest Leadership Hurdle: 4 Tips for Navigating Impostor Syndrome

At Wolf & Heron, we do a lot of one-on-one work with leaders through our coaching practice. Most of the time, these leaders, although well established in their careers, still believe they have more to accomplish professionally; they haven’t reached their end-goal, and their ambition remains strong.

And yet, despite their previous achievements and successful careers, we find ourselves having conversation after conversation helping leaders see and feel their own potential for that next step. We’ve noticed that one of the key hurdles of leaders stepping into their own leadership is their personal belief that they’re not yet ready.

One coachee, we’ll call her Lisa, was offered a new role as in division leadership. She came to a session with Stephanie with the goal of thinking through whether or not she should take the job. Her main reason not to? She might fail, especially in the beginning when she would be figuring things out. Another coachee, we’ll call him Paul, came to Kara with the desire to think through an opportunity to lead a working group of leaders from a plethora of non-profit organizations. His main reason not to? The leaders were intimidating, and he didn’t feel comfortable facilitating them through a working session when he didn’t feel at the same level of authority as he perceived the members of the working group to be.

Lisa and Paul’s challenges, and similar conundrums of many of our coachees, are known as Impostor Syndrome. Imposter syndrome is not merely an affliction of the truly inexperienced or those starting a new career. Imposter syndrome is something that leaders at all levels navigate.

According to Wikipedia, impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome, or the impostor experience) is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a "fraud." According to Sakulku and Alexander, (International Journal of Behavioral Science), 70% of people experience some form of imposter syndrome in their lives. Fear is a normal human emotion and its existence makes sense when you think about it... Large predator? Run! Food stores getting low? I could starve. I must work hard to prepare for winter! While fear is evolutionarily designed to keep us alive, it’s important to not let it prevent us from fully stepping into the leadership we can (and should) embody.

The fear of being found out as inadequate will prevent you from trying, taking on new things, or speaking of yourself in a way that conveys confidence and inspires opportunity. And yet… to build credibility and expertise, you’re gonna have to do those things. It’s a vicious circle, but we all have to deal with it. Here are a few tips for how to prevent this invisible roadblock from stalling your leadership journey.

Check in with Yourself. When you’re presented with an opportunity that feels out of your reach, stay aware of your feelings. If you notice self-doubt creep in, simply label it. Just by doing that, the fear will already be more manageable. Then, once it’s named, your thinking around how to address it will be more open-minded and creative than outright avoiding the opportunity that scares you.

Reframe Your Thinking: Treat the Challenge as a Step, and Not the Endgame. Reframing opportunities as a step on the road to something even bigger helps in two ways. First, it makes the step right in front of you suddenly a lot smaller by comparison. Second, it helps you see the step in front of you as a learning opportunity that is part of a journey rather than the culmination of your entire career and lifetime.

“Anna” came to Stephanie nervous about an internal job interview for a promotion her boss recommended she try for. She had doubts about whether she’d get the job and was afraid that she was going to bomb the interview. They worked together to reframe this interview as a step on a long journey to becoming a skilled interviewee. This was just one opportunity to practice, reflect, and learn. By the time she left the session, she was excited to practice interviewing because one day she planned to be the public relations face of her organization, and this was just one way for her to hone her skills. Whether or not she landed the job became a lot less central to her experience.

Seek Outside Perspectives. This is probably where we help the most as coaches to our clients. Clients share their doubts, and we give them a pep talk, act as a sounding board, and help them see the opportunity rather than the risk. Find friends, mentors, and colleagues who can do this for you, and you’ll have a great set of weapons around you to combat impostor syndrome.

Take A Step. Sometimes impostor syndrome shows up as procrastination. You want to do it, you plan to do it, but every time you sit down to do it, you think to yourself that maybe tomorrow would be a better day to start. Instead, eat the frog.

“Lindsay” came to a session with the big question of whether or not to apply for a fellowship opportunity. She wasn’t sure she wanted to apply; it was far away, and would be a year-long commitment, and after all, there was a decent chance she wouldn’t get it anyway. But listening to her speak about what the fellowship could mean indicated to Stephanie how excited she was about the possibility. Upon some probing, Lindsay realized that applying didn’t mean officially accepting the offer… it was just one step, after all. Even if it didn’t work out, she knew she’d learn something in the process that would set her up better for next time.

Taking a step—even a small one—towards something that excites and scares you can be enough to get the ball rolling and build momentum. Keep taking the next step that is in front of you and try not to think about how scary the bigger picture or goal is.

All of these tips require that the leader in question have the time, space and mental energy required to reflect and not just react. If you’re struggling to do this on your own, consider partnering with a colleague for some peer coaching, or bring in an external coach to create a system of accountability to help you move forward.

What other strategies do you use to combat impostor syndrome?

Kara Davidson and Stephanie Judd are the founders of Wolf & Heron, a leadership development firm that leverages expertise in social psychology, influence, and facilitation to develop leaders who can effectively engage and inspire others. We offer customized, people-focused programs, such as corporate training, public workshops, and executive coaching. Our clients transcend organizational profiles; we work with Fortune 100 companies to startups, small non-profits to large educational institutions­. Our founders, Kara Davidson and Stephanie Judd, have over 40 years of combined experience developing and delivering solutions that are guaranteed to inspire.



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