Feed Your Imposter Gremlin a Slice of Humble Pie

by | Aug 23, 2020

There’s this thing called the Imposter Syndrome —a belief that you aren’t actually as competent as you are believed to be. You’ve probably heard of it, and if you’re like many leaders who are finding their footing in a new role, you may be stricken with some of its symptoms —uncertainty, anxiety, insecurity, even guilt.

If you can relate, rest assured: you aren’t the first leader to have met the Imposter Gremlin. According to 2019 research, roughly half of younger (24 – 44 year old) leaders, and over half of women leaders, experience frequent or high levels of “imposter feelings.”

Maybe your symptoms feel like a mild low-grade fever, or even a full-on raging infection.

When we are stricken with the Imposter Syndrome, it feels kind of like a little creature —who we’ll call the Imposter Gremlin— that is permanently perched on our shoulder, constantly reminding us that we’re not good or worthy enough. It convinces us that we’re a phony, and we have no choice but to fake it… or else everyone will find out and we’ll be out of a job.

This nasty little fella baits us into pretending that we have it all figured out —projecting “I’ve got this,” even though inside, you’re wondering, “Uh…do I have this?” And he tricks us into thinking that knowing everything is the ticket to getting people to accept, trust, and follow us. 

But when leaders try to overcome the inner pain of imposter feelings by projecting this know-it-all image, it can result in a whole host of issues—not the least of which is that it makes us less relatable and connected to the people we’ve been charged with leading. 

Make no mistake: when we’re afflicted with Imposter Syndrome, we will be less effective leaders.

But the Imposter Syndrome is actually the ugly shadow side of one of the most important attributes for leaders to cultivate —humility. And as author and thought leader Seth Godin said, “we don’t have to feel like a fraud to also be gracious, open or humble.” When we lean into humility as leaders, we embrace the fact that we are not going to be the smartest person in every room… nor do we need to be. So we don’t have to fake it. 

Leaders take note: the research is pretty clear that humility is among the factors most highly correlated with executive success. And when you think about it, this is pretty intuitive.

Humble leaders know what they don’t know, and have a bias for being open-minded, seeking additional information, and actively learning. By virtue of their humility, they recognize and openly acknowledge that they won’t always (or often) have the best answer, and instead, view that job as tapping into the collective wisdom to get to the right answer. What’s more, humility is an inherently attractive quality, and can go a long way in building trust with your team and inspiring followership.

And to let the air out of a common misconception, a leader can be humble and confident at the same time—something Jim Collins wrote about in the groundbreaking book, Good to Great.

So, if you feel like a phony, here are 3 ways to overcome imposter feelings, and embrace humility instead:

#1 – Throw a going-away party for your inner perfectionist. Perfectionism, a common attribute among ambitious high-performers, goes hand-in-hand with Imposter Syndrome… and is kryptonite to humble leadership. Perfectionism, a coping mechanism for those experiencing Imposter feelings, is marked by heightened concern over making mistakes, and strong need for approval. This is something I’ve had to learn to self-manage in my own life and leadership.

The thing is, in an ironic twist, our quest to be perfect makes us considerably less effective. Things take longer. We’re way more critical of ourselves. And when we never live up to our own exacting standards, it can trigger a vicious cycle of self-doubt, which hampers our performance. You need to change your relationship with your inner perfectionist, and ease the unrealistic standards. Ask yourself: Do I want to be perfect, or be successful?

#2 – Refocus on others, not yourself. Excessive self-concern—What are people going to think of me? Am I doing a good job? Do they like me?—is the enemy of great leadership. It places our attention on ourselves, instead of on our people. And a leader’s job—the thing that their companies pay them for—is to translate the skills, talents, and passions of others into results.

Start to become aware of whether your attention is focused inwardly or outwardly. Surely, self-reflection is useful and important as a leader. But when you catch yourself swirling around in unproductive rumination, develop a habit of shifting your attention outward towards others. Ask yourself: How can I best serve others in this moment?

#3 – Get comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” Three of the most powerful words a leader can say.

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