NextGen Leaders: Seven tips for overcoming Impostor Syndrome

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NextGen Series: This is the fourth article of five in our new series focused on the next generation of leadership in the nonprofit sector. Read the firstsecondthird and fifth articles. There is also a corresponding webinar for new & aspiring leaders - please click here for information and to register.

Many years ago, a friend and I were walking back to our offices after having lunch together. We had both recently been promoted to managers and were enjoying sharing the ups and downs of being new leaders. All of a sudden we both stopped in the middle of the street and told each other how funny it was that we were now ‘in charge’ because ‘what did we know?’ Our laughter subsided into nervous giggles. And then we stopped laughing altogether. Because the joke wasn’t funny anymore. We were both feeling like a fraud for taking the promotions, the money, and having more power. Who were we to lead others? Why did we think we should/could be in that kind of position? What if we couldn’t do it? The feeling of inadequacy hung around for a while too. And, as I made my way into roles of more responsibility, it came back to visit. ‘How did YOU get here?’ the voice would ask. ‘You don’t know what you are doing and everyone will find out’. It wasn’t until years later that I found out it was actually a real thing – ‘impostor syndrome’. It’s a feeling of inadequacy and the fear of being exposed as a fraud. And it happens to everyone at some point.

However, I am going to put forward that it’s especially rife in the nonprofit sector. We don’t invest in leadership development and there isn’t a school for Executive Directors/CEOS (although I have always thought there should be! If anyone wants to work with me on starting one, let me know!) We often isolate ourselves from others by immersing ourselves in the work and failing to build our networks, leaving us no one to learn from or with whom we can share our challenges/successes. When we move up, we do it by having to figure everything out on our own. We do it by making mistakes and compiling a list of ‘what not to do’ for next time. And that’s okay. It just takes a long time and can be hard on the ego. This is true of all leadership but in the nonprofit sector where ‘admin’ is seen as an evil budget line and where professional development funding has all but disappeared, it’s particularly challenging. And the expectations of leaders are extremely high. A senior leadership position requires us to learn and do many different things that we have never come across before. The idea of ‘faking it until we make it’ seems truly terrifying and we worry that we will never in fact, ‘make it’.

Over the years, I have also realized that the fraud feeling never goes away completely. With every new position where I have stretched myself, it returned. However, I have learned how to deal with it. And the most effective way to do that is to face the fraud head on. Ignoring the feeling can lead to an increase in anxiety and it doesn’t go away. It’s still hiding there. Like Pennywise, the clown from IT hiding in the sewer (sorry, but it’s just like this!), we don’t want the fraud feeling to jump out at the wrong moment or sit there eating away at our confidence. So, direct confrontation is the only way to move through it.

Here’s how:

1. Don’t ask ‘why’ you are feeling this way. It’s just a natural feeling when taking on something new. Trying to analyze it will lead you down a dark path toward all your insecurities. And, again, like Pennywise in the sewer, it will be impossible to get out (sorry, I did it again, but that clown!)

2. Accept that the fraud feeling exists because you are in a new situation. Learn to recognize it.

3. Acknowledge its existence: ‘Hello imposter syndrome. It’s nice to see you. I guess I am stretching myself again and that’s a good thing.’

4. Invite it to leave: ‘Thank you for visiting but you can go away now.’

5. Be on the lookout for it whenever you get more responsibility or try something new. New situations can trigger a lot of emotional responses. The fraud feeling is one of the worst because it is set deep in our insecurities and can make us defensive. That is never a good thing in a new position.

6. Build your network. Your to do list seems to be all important I know. But, having a network of your peers that you can grow with and learn with/from is extremely important to a leader.

7. Remind yourself that you are good enough. You were given the new position or responsibility because someone thought that you could do it. You just need to think you can too.

Don’t let the feeling that you may not be ‘good enough’ get in your way. You are and you will be. As mentioned in a previous article in this series, leadership is about ‘becoming’ so you will always be learning if you are doing it right. Find a friend that supports you on your journey too. My friend from all those years ago is now a very senior manager in a for profit company and we will laugh when we think about how we got to where we are now. But it’s not because we don’t deserve it. It’s because we kept going despite feeling like frauds who didn’t belong in a leadership position. We did and so do you.

Until next time,
Lianne

Lianne Picot is a leadership coach, trainer and speaker that helps new & aspiring leaders to become INSPIRING leaders. Lianne has worked in the nonprofit sectors in the UK, Ireland and Canada for over 25 years as a practitioner, Executive Director and CEO. She is a Certified Executive Coach and a Part-time Instructor at The Chang School, Ryerson University, teaching in the Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Management Certificate program. Lianne is also the creator of ‘The Leadership Leap’, a 12 week online leadership program that helps new & aspiring leaders to develop a leadership mindset and key competencies. Connect with Lianne at lianne@bluemorpho.co or find out more about her services at www.bluemorpho.co and www.theleadershipleap.net.

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