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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