The positive side of impostor syndrome

David Cliff
Aug 6, 2019 · 3 min read

A recurrent theme raised by many people in leadership circles is the experience of imposter syndrome.

There are many definitions of this approach, and attaching the word “syndrome,” dignifies it almost as a pathological state. At its simplest level, feeling like an impostor is often associated with feeling like one should not be undertaking the role or function that one is taking at this moment in time. If power has been given to you, the exercising of it is tainted with self-doubt. If one has achieved great things, one doubts one’s personal qualities are in proportion with the achievement, and is therefore left feeling fraudulent and inauthentic. Such feelings taint the sheer joy of personal success and can instead cause anxiety and doubt.

Of course, this state is very much a glass half empty view (I used this term rather than condition as we, as a society, are very good at creating abstract concepts and turning them into nouns which psychologists and gurus charge hefty fees to navigate). A glass half full position would be to consider the nature of humility in terms of leadership.

Humility, is an interesting term, not infrequently attributed to those on spiritual path rather than the movers and shakers. It is, however, perhaps one of the greatest attributes leaders can have. It comes from a philosophy of life that recognises that we are just one of 8 billion people upon the planet. It argues that none are superior or inferior, they are just different. It comes from a recognition of the finiteness of one’s own life and however elevated we are now, we can be unseated in a moment and find that life moves from the fast lane to the scrap yard in the blink of an eye. It is awareness of a human need to want to differentiate ourselves from others, yet a tacit recognition that we are all ultimately the same with a limited existence.

In reality those who would say they experience imposter syndrome, recognise that they are occupying a social role and are constantly evaluating the compatibility of their personality, aspirations and self-image and the social description attached to that role. If one is constantly analysing the fit between the two, one will inevitably find oneself wanting in some way when compared against the abstract ideal embodied in the role, whether that’s inspirational speaker, gurus, CEO, leader or whatever.

The stark reality is, those with this affliction, as some view it, are experiencing humility in its rawest sense. It is a conscientiousness and attitude of mind that recognises we are unique, feeling, sentient beings that don’t simply fit into roles we garner or earned. Just like an off-the-peg garment very rarely fits perfectly, we have to adjust to it and accept there are bits where it is just right, and there are bits where we or the garment could be different.

Give me the leader with impostor syndrome every time over the self-assured. Not one that is anxious and disabled by the condition, but one whose conscience is pricked regularly and undertakes periods of introspection. Great leadership is not about confidence, it is about grappling with uncertainty, change, shifting dynamics, identity, organisational and socio-political constraints, markets and a plethora of other phenomena whilst somehow distilling these variables into a meaningful, productive way forward.

Doing this well, is not a task for the over self-assured so much as the self-aware. It is not for the old-fashioned, heroic, authoritarian leader, so much as the consultative, informed and enlightened one. It is not about the exhaustive list of one’s knowledge and experience, but about a recognition that, as we grow, just how little we actually know and yet we continue to find meaningful ways forward.

So, unless you are paralysed by anxiety, embrace it, recognise it as an essential part of your leadership and force within you that is probably making you a better leader despite the discomfort you may feel!

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