• Christian Cunningham

On Leadership: Embrace your Imposter Syndrome



The Doubt


Everyone I have ever known – who is worth knowing anyway – has been touched by the spectre of self-doubt. The niggling, nagging, doubting little voice in their head that jostles between ‘you got this and ‘you have no right to be here, you’re a fraud, and everybody knows it.


You may have heard of Imposter Syndrome; it has been written about, spoken about ad nauseum, and I believe it to be fairly universally recognised as a reality. That said, I am yet to see a definitive definition, and more importantly a way to attack this Imposter Syndrome monster.


The question - what is it?


Clinical definition aside, I would describe Imposter Syndrome as when you feel like your level of competence does not match the requirements of your role, or of those around you. You doubt your ability, your talent, your knowledge, and your capacity to execute. It can be as acute as feeling like any minute someone will walk through the door and say, ‘we’re onto you, everybody knows you’re a failure, please pack your bags and leave.’


Sound familiar? It sure as hell does to me.


The good news is that like any emotion, it can be turned into a weapon.


So, what can you do about it?


First, there are a few things you need to know.

These 3 points below are the beginnings of taking this doubt monster - this Imposter - and pushing it back. They are not everything, but go a long way to give us some calming context.


#1 Everyone is making it up as they go, and no one actually knows anything for sure


Read that again.


Every single person you have ever known is entirely making it up as they go - EVERYONE.


Read that again too.


People build knowledge about areas of expertise, many are amazing in their field, but underneath this is a constant state of learning, testing and experimentation. What happens if I pull this lever? Well, that worked, maybe now I’ll try this one.


Over time, as we build more knowledge and trust in our judgement it does get more comfortable, but the truth is, all it takes is one unexpected change in circumstances and we are back into chaotic guess mode. More people live in this state than would ever admit.


#2 Everyone (worth knowing) experiences doubt, and indeed, Imposter Syndrome


Straight talk, if you have never felt this in your life it is likely you have never taken a real risk. Part of being an inch or more out of your comfort zone – provided you aren’t a sociopath – is that it can open the gates to all sorts of doubts flooding into your conscious thought.


Let me tell you this, everyone worth knowing has gone through this, and many continue to go through it repeatedly. It is the uncomfortable price of admission for getting better at anything…


#3 When you start any new thing, new role, you are an Imposter!


Taking on anything new – a promotion, a new role, starting a business, trying a new hobby – it is very likely you will feel totally overwhelmed, out of your depth, doubting your abilities and all that unfun stuff. It is also very likely that you’ll be terrible at it for a while, maybe longer than you would like.


Don’t. Quit.


This is the deal! If you are going to have the courage to suck up the fear and try something new, you have to give yourself permission to be a fool for a while, and expect to make some mistakes as you learn. It sucks. It can hurt your soul. But you must EMBRACE that Imposter, that fool, because this is the price of making something great happen.


But what can you DO?


Well, I can tell you what I did (and do…)


The first thing is – hug your inner Imposter (Syndrome). This sounds ridiculous reading it back, but it is true.


You are an Imposter. It’s not that you know nothing; you know a lot of things, but for a little while you are going to be a rookie. Embrace it, give yourself the freedom to make mistakes, to learn from people who have been doing it longer, and from those above and around you.


Map out your goals however you like to do it. I love running a map on the first 100 days, as this is about the time it takes to get your rhythm right, identify key relationships and start to get some momentum.


Set your behavioural expectations – of yourself and of your team. Understand that there is an opportunity to be viewed with authority, but this is not built on ego or pretending that you know more than you do – quite the opposite.


Authority is built on questioning, learning, showing respect to those with knowledge, building consensus and making your expectations crystal clear. Clearer than crystal.


So, embrace your Imposter, take the risk of being out of your depth, but do it with a plan to get on top.


You might just surprise yourself.