Authentic leadership and imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome: those pesky feelings of inadequacy that can persist regardless of how successful we are in the eyes of the world. But is it really “imposter syndrome?” Sounds like a serious malady that might require a lifetime of therapy.

Perhaps our culture has pathologized the natural nervousness that comes from growing into something new. Or maybe we’re not communicating authentically in the moment, as Dr. Amy Cuddy posits.

I suspect it often comes from actually being an imposter: trying to play at something that’s not aligned with who we really are… which is much more about identity than authentic communication. And that means that the most effective remedy for imposter syndrome is simply self-knowledge.

The most effective remedy for imposter syndrome is simply self-knowledge.

As I contemplate writing about authentic leadership, feeling the resistance and avoidance that characterizes imposter syndrome, I’m curious which of these options lay underneath.

Moving from imposter to authentic leader

Truth is, I don’t have decades of personal experience with the topic of authentic leadership. I don’t have a degree in organizational development. Sure, I was in positions of leadership… but I was far from authentic. I didn’t know myself, which seems crazy in hindsight; I’ve always been incredibly introspective. But overanalyzing ourselves doesn’t equate to true self-knowledge.

It’s hard to see blind spots – the ways that we’re different from other people, or the assumptions we make about our roles in the world. A friend phrased this well over coffee this morning: we tend to color within the lines that were already drawn for us, not thinking to question whether or how they define us.

It’s only been in the past couple years, starting over with a fresh sheet of paper and researching my own quirky brain wiring, have I come to fully understand and embrace the outlier that I am.

For the first time in my life, I’m playing within my zone of authenticity, aka “ground of power,” which might sound hokey but it’s true to my sensory experience. When I’m fully in alignment with my truth, I feel grounded, tapped into the source of my power just like a river is tapped into the source of flow.

I feel more like a leader, not controlling or coercing but simply being my vision, attracting others who share it.

I’ve embraced my limitations not only as design constraints, but as necessary boundaries… just like the banks of a river contain and channel the water’s force. When I venture outside these bounds, the healthy side of imposter syndrome – totally normal, imbalance-induced anxiety — keeps me in check.

Self-authorship is the best defense against imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is the natural result of playing in a space where we aren’t designed to play, focusing on comparisons in the outer world instead of being deeply grounded in our truths, and feeling (unnecessarily) ashamed to admit our own natural limitations.

The most authentic way I can write about authentic leadership is to be fully transparent with you about where I’ve failed, and also where I’ve found success: not in a book, or a degree, or a particular snazzy-sounding role, but in simply claiming my whole self without judgment.

This comes down to self-authorship, which Robert Kegan defines as

“an internal personal identity, a self-authorship that can coordinate, integrate, act upon, or invent values, beliefs, convictions, generalizations, ideals, abstractions, interpersonal loyalties, and intrapersonal states. It is no longer authored by them, it authors them and thereby achieves a personal authority.”[1]

Are you the author of your own life and work, intentionally designing around your strengths and limitations? If so, the natural anxiety that emerges from new situations or stepping outside your well-developed strengths cannot possibly be called imposter syndrome. Cut yourself some slack!

It also means that regardless of your title, you are a leader. Perhaps it’s only when we fully step into our truth can leadership be possible… an authentic leadership presence that emerges from within, not claimed through force or promotion or elections.

Authentic leadership starts with who

Simon Sinek popularized starting with why… but I say start with WHO. Who are you as a leader? Who are your team members, colleagues, customers and partners? How are you wired? What emotions move you? What fuels your sense of aliveness? What are the challenges that only you can joyfully solve?

WHO defines the why, what and how.

We all want to work where we feel like we belong. Belonging cannot happen unless we’re seen for who we really are… and once seen, accepted. The only leaders capable of generating these kinds of cultures are those who have done the work of seeing and embracing themselves.

The only leaders capable of generating cultures of belonging are those who have done the work of seeing and embracing themselves.

I cannot see in you what I cannot (or will not) see in myself.

I cannot accept in you what I cannot accept in myself.

The more deeply I see myself, the more I can see the hidden currents that flow through you.

Below the water line, below what’s easily visible, is where authentic leadership is born.

Without seeing both our similarities and differences, we’ll collectively continue to stay stuck. We’ll be imposters, wearing our masks, pretending to fit into the world while dying inside a little bit every day.

I’d love to hear from you. If you’re feeling imposter syndrome, can you say you truly know yourself? Have you designed life and work that’s fully aligned with what lights you up?

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The gateway to psychological safety and inclusion

Do you feel safe to be your authentic self in your work? In your family life? In your local community?

Psychological safety is a big topic lately among my LinkedIn network, probably because so many of us feel unsafe in typical company cultures… especially if we feel different from the people around us. In this post I’ll unpack the link between Safety/Security, Belonging and Autonomy, plus the fourth “gateway” need that fuels all of these.

Safety may not be as universally important as we think

Safety is baked into Security, one of the 12 core human needs that have emerged in my research into human motivation. While it’s essential for everyone, its relative importance can vary greatly. The weight we apply to feeling safe and secure (versus another emotion like feeling free or expressive) is an indication of our “motivational DNA” — the unique mix of core needs that drive individual behavior.

Security is deeply linked to another need state: Belonging. Security-seekers find safety in belonging to something bigger than themselves. This is an ancient, tribal connection, rooted in a time when to be separated from the tribe meant certain death.

But let’s look at Autonomy, the polar opposite of Security. If Autonomy is one of our motivating needs, security doesn’t play much of a role in our decisions. Rather, we’re motivated by individuality, freedom and exploration. So far, none of my clients have included Security in their Core 4 needs. Psychological safety and security is a given for Rebels (gifted adults who fast thinkers, dot connectors and status quo busters); we notice it when it’s missing, but it doesn’t drive us. Instead, it bores us.

“Rebels notice when Security is missing, but it doesn’t drive us; instead, it bores us.”

Belonging, however, is in most of my clients’ Core 4… and Belonging means something different to Rebels. It’s essential, but we don’t find it in the herd; in fact, we can feel decidedly unsafe in the herd. We’re often the outliers, and we’d prefer to be outliers — moving to the beat of our own drum — rather than pretend to fit into a group who doesn’t understand us. The way we find real belonging is to find our tribe of other outliers who get the way our minds work.

Which brings me to the gateway need: Recognition.

Recognition is being seen — truly seen and valued — for who we are as individuals. Recognition lies at the intersection of Security, Autonomy and Belonging. I feel safe because I know you see me. I feel a sense of autonomy because you recognize my individuality and what makes me unique. And I feel connected, even if I’m different from you. You may not totally get me, but if you value what I bring to the table, that’s what counts.

Recognition brings the outliers in from the cold. If we don’t feel safe or connected, the root cause is likely feeling unseen and unappreciated for our unique gifts. Recognition and diversity belong together.

Our differences unite us

When people insist that we’re all basically the same, they’re negating what makes us… us. It’s why people of color get upset when white people say that they don’t see color: color is an integral part of individual and shared identity. Negating color — or any other defining characteristic, visible or hidden — is blanking out that human. Somehow we’ve all bought into the lie that we have to focus on the similarities — what we share as humans — at the expense of recognizing differences. Or perhaps we’re all trapped in a self-centric view of the world, assuming everyone else is just like us.

It’s only when we’ve done the work to plumb the depths of our own differences and embracing what we find there, can we truly see another human for their unique gifts and value… and on seeing that uniqueness, find both psychological safety and shared connection. For myself, I’ve noticed a huge difference in the measure of individuality I am able to perceive in others only after doing my own inner work. My clients say that they feel seen by me — and in seeing, I feel seen in return, for perhaps the first time in my life. Helping original minds be seen and valued for their unique gifts is now my life’s work.

“It’s only when we’ve done the work to plumb the depths of our own differences and embracing what we find there, can we truly see another human for their unique gifts and value… and on seeing that uniqueness, find both safety and shared connection.” 

Unity in and through differences is not only possible, it’s essential. We must hold the balance between the whole and the individual parts, not judging or evicting those quirky threads that seem like the wrong color up close, but appreciating the distinctiveness they bring to the whole cloth. For example, Rebels aren’t tied to the safe, traditional way of doing things; we move the world forward, which can be scary for security seekers who are driven to minimize risk. How can both coexist and work together?

Which brings me to cognitive diversity, the newest kid on the diversity block. Cognitive diversity is challenging because it’s below the water line. We can see whether women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ are represented in leadership. But how our brains are wired? Not so much.

And the kind of diversity I’m talking about here — emotional/motivational diversity, which can often be linked to our brain wiring — isn’t even a blip on people’s radars. And yet these two spectrums, cognitive and motivational, are the unseen engines that drive everything. Or they bring everything to a halt because they’re unrecognized…. they’re unseen.

Start with who

Creating harmony within teams and cultures begins with a deep, appreciative inquiry into individuality and diversity that lurks under the surface. Assume that others may be wired entirely differently from you, and follow curiosity into deeper questions and listening to what they want to be seen for.

Perhaps it’s also time for a deeper inquiry within yourself. What do you want to be seen for? In what ways do you feel unseen, unvalued and unappreciated? How can you bring more of this into your work, showing up as an authentic, whole person and leader?

My first principle in life or business is to Start with WHO (not why.) Who are you, really? Who are your colleagues, team members, partners, customers? What uniquely unites us, and how can we see and appreciate differences that create a tapestry of inclusion? I believe this is the heart of a more human future of work.

I’d love to hear from you. What do you think about this relationship between Recognition, Security, Autonomy and Belonging? How might this show up in your own culture?

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When the words don’t come

When your drive runs low.

When you’re just not feelin’ it.

When it feels forced instead of flowing.

When you just want to walk away.

It’s ok.

It’s not (always) a sign that you’re doing the wrong thing.

I absolutely love what I do. And I’ve been working really hard, trying to get some movement and closure on some projects. A friend of mine commented yesterday, “I thought you were all about intentional life/work design… why are you working so hard?”

Well, I’m building something that I care about. I’m passionate about helping leaders with quirky brains see, embrace and express their gifts; they’re the game-changers who will change this world. I love this work: coaching, writing, creating courses. I love the fact that I’m now in Istanbul listening to the seagulls and the call to prayer as I write this.

And… I hit a wall yesterday.

I sat down three times to write this weekly newsletter and the words simply didn’t come.

I’m tapped out. And that’s ok.

This week, one of my clients shared the song, “Turn, turn, turn” by the Byrds. To everything there is a season.

A time to get in the zone and work around the clock, if that’s what you want to do. And also a time to walk away from the computer for an hour, a day, a weekend or a week.

A time to recharge.

A time to connect.

A time for silence.

This feels qualitatively different than when I hit burnout three years ago. Then, I wasn’t aligned with my truth. Consulting seemed intellectually right; my brain was happy but my soul was starved.

Nothing’s perfect in this world… but I’ve designed a life and work that’s fully in line with my identity, strengths and limitations. In general, it feels really easy. The only time it’s not easy is when I push myself a little too hard, and I know to listen to my body when it’s time to slow down.

My only real job is to be honest with myself and with you. To be fully human and give myself permission to feel whatever comes up, and honor that truth.

Interestingly…. when I choose to slow down and feel what wants to be felt, the words come.

I’ll spend the next couple days wandering with my camera around an empty Istanbul, then flying to the sunny diving town of Dahab, Egypt (where, reportedly, there’s no COVID!) to chill out a bit more before jumping back into work I love. 

Lucky me, right? But it’s not luck… this is the life I’ve chosen and created. 

What is your authentic life that’s ready to be born? I’d love to hear from you. 

PS. If you’re ready to design a life and work that is deeply authentic and true, I have one 1:1 spot left. You can chat with me here. Or, put your name on the wait list for cohort 2 of Intentional Rebels.