3 Antidotes to The Imposter Syndrome for New Leaders

by | Aug 12, 2020

It is your first day on the job as a new manager. Maybe you just got promoted. Or maybe you got hired into a leadership role from the outside. Or you just took the helm after an unexpected departure.

Whichever way, you want to make a great first impression. After all, you know that first impressions matter, and can be lasting. The stakes are high, you realize.

“OK… I need to come off as credible. Like I have it all together. Like I have it all figured out,” you might be thinking. “After all,” you convince yourself, “a leader can’t look weak. People will never follow me!”

But inside, you feel like a fraud. “What if they find out that I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing?”

Cue the downward spiral of self-doubt and insecurity. Ugh. It feels nasty, really. And yet, we’ve all probably been there.

Some call this the Imposter Syndrome. It is the most common struggle I’ve heard from first-time executives, but can be sand in an incoming leader’s gears. There’s actually some science that explains why.

According to neuroscientist Tara Smart, “…the fear of “being found out” [is] associated with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol; and the “not deserving” correlates with lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin… which relates to mood.”

What does this mean? The imposter syndrome that you might be feeling can create a rather nasty chemical cocktail of fear, shame, uncertainty and mistrust… which, as you can imagine, isn’t going to help the cause when it comes to winning your teams’ hearts and minds.

But I found 3 antidotes to the poisonous effects of the Imposter Syndrome, which you can use in your very first meeting with your new team to set you on the right path.

  • Acknowledgment. Name what you expect others might be thinking. You’re a young leader. You’re new to the business. You haven’t led a team of this size before. Eat the elephant in the room by accepting and acknowledging the unspoken truth. (But don’t ever apologize for this… you were put in this position for a reason.) This requires courage, but can create instant trust. “S/he gets it!” your people will be thinking.
  • Vulnerability. Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen for who you are and where you are. It is the kryptonite to that little gremlin who is telling you that your team will hate you if they find out about your true feelings. My experience is that people are longing for leaders who have the strength to vulnerably say, “I don’t have this all figured out,” or “I’m going to need some help.”
  • Commitment. Here’s your chance to demonstrate that you are humble and strong at the same time. You both “get it”—the fact that you’re new, and in some cases, young and/or underqualified—and you’re not going to let “it” get in the way of you rising to the challenge. You’re all in, and are committed to figuring your way through it. To give it everything you have.

I remember my meeting with my new team as a young executive, where it was announced that I would become their leader. I was the youngest person in the room.

Drawing on the three ideas above, my talk track went something like the following:

“Hi everyone. I’m so excited to have the chance to work with all of you! Perhaps this announcement was unexpected for some of you, and I understand how this might look to you… here’s a leader who is young, and doesn’t have nearly the industry experience that we have. I just want to acknowledge that I understand why you might be thinking that, and the feelings that that might spark for you.

What this gives me is: a lot of humility for me, and a lot of respect for you. I don’t know this business like you do. I’m new to this. But we’re going to do this anyways and figure it out together. I’m going to really need your help.

There’s a lot I’m not sure about as I step into this role. But there are a few things I am. First, I’m going to make a lot of mistakes. Second, I’m going to work my tail off to learn, and am going to have a lot of questions for you. And third, I’m going to bring every last drop of the experience and talents that I do have to help us find a way to win and succeed together.”

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