Imposter or guest?

The King’s Fund published an interesting blog on imposter syndrome the other day, after participants in their third sector leadership programme consistently identified it as an issue – surprising perhaps for a group of successful and high-performing CEOs. Even these high flyers reported some of the doubts associated with a fear that they might not be worthy of their roles, or that others are better, cleverer or more suited. I can relate to that fear of ‘being found out’ and how it can lead to the urge to behave in ways that are motivated by managing self-doubt, rather than adding value to my organisation. This can be micro-managing, avoiding conflict or defensiveness in the face of the criticism which ultimately leads to personal growth.

The King’s Fund suggest some practical approaches to managing self-doubt, including seeing it as a skill and an emotion to be curious about, talk about and explore, rather than as a failing. As Lord Victor Adebowale of Turning Point has noted, leadership requires a combination of self-confidence and self-doubt: one to act, and one to act well. There are no perfect leaders, and the only truly bad leaders I have met in this sector have all had an utter lack of self-doubt in common.

The root cause of imposter syndrome is not, in my view, a failing in the individuals who experience it, it’s a symptom of the continuing mismatch between heroic ideas of leadership and what humans can actually achieve in leadership roles without being destructive. We are still conditioned to see leaders as people who can achieve the impossible – the elite athletes of the charity, public service or corporate world. But, just as witnessing elite sporting achievement is as likely to leave people feeling that sport is not for them, as to inspire them to try to emulate what they’ve seen, the cult of the heroic leader can disempower the rest of us, rather than inspire us to share in the awesome responsibilities which we are told these exceptional individuals can hold alone.

The cure for this lies not in improving the self-confidence of people in powerful jobs, but in distributing that power, recognising the unique strengths that each of us can bring and piece together, and including as many people as possible in that ‘us’: including people who are too often described as the ultimate ‘beneficiaries’, ‘patients’ or ‘service users’ of that leadership brilliance. Self-doubt may not be a demon to be vanquished, but the reality of how equal we all are or should be in worth, disrupting the power imbalances which we continue to tolerate and maintain, and to celebrate at every industry awards ceremony.

I have enjoyed reading Mark McKergow’s work on the idea of leader as ‘host‘, welcoming the whole team to the party, stepping forward to start festivities and stepping back to allow everyone to join in. But in the world of charities and public services, I wonder if a better cure for feeling like an imposter, may be to behave more like a guest. That means being able to hear when we are unwelcome, as well as when we are welcome. And more self-doubt as a leader might mean becoming more self-confident as an ally.

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