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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Rebels versus Guardians: a case study in misunderstandings

The story of Andrei Doroshin, a 22 year old who successfully led the testing and vaccination of thousands of Philly residents before getting fired, caught my eye in the news feed. Since writing this post, I’ve learned that this is quite a controversial topic and that Andrei is widely seen as guilty in the court of public opinion. I don’t know the details or the truth of his guilt or innocence… but I do want to use Andrei to highlight how brain wiring can lead to tragic outcomes and deep misunderstandings.

It seems evident from these write-ups that Andrei is a prototypical Rebel with a Cause — my term for gifted adults. And this story isn’t new or unusual: it’s played out in traditional organizations and political arenas around the world on a daily basis.

His story could be my story, and also perhaps yours, dear misunderstood Rebel. It’s also yours, you Guardians who work hard to keep the system relatively safe, predictable and efficient within this rapidly changing world. To you, Rebels are often threats not to be trusted.

The point of this article is not about actual guilt or innocence, or who’s right or wrong. It’s about the necessity of understanding and harmonizing opposite ways of moving through the world to bring out the best of both.

What makes Andrei a Rebel?

Diverse interests — He’s a leader in three different businesses: a real estate firm, a biotech company, and an organization called Philly Fighting COVID (CEO), the group who was tapped to run Philadelphia’s first mass vaccination clinic.

Fast thinker and mover — Andrei first gathered a group of friends to manufacture face shields with a 3D printer and donate them to local hospitals. The model then morphed into a pop-up COVID testing center before pivoting to vaccines.

Status quo buster — Hailed as an “operational savant,” Andrei led the team who administered over 7,000 shots (8% of the first dose count) in rapid time.

“We took the entire model and just threw it out the window,” Doroshin said during a segment on the Today show earlier this month, explaining what he saw as his clinic’s two big innovations: getting rid of paper registrations and creating a vaccine assembly line to speed up the shot-giving process. “We think a little differently than people in health care do.”

“Who Exactly is Philly Fighting COVID?” Philly Mag

Fairness fighter —  In interviews, Andrei revealed the justice gene that’s prevalent in gifted adults. “We just vaccinated 2,000 more people this weekend. We only care about vaccinating people.” And when confronted about his lack of experience, he commented, “Our expertise is we’re just trying to help.”

What’s all the fuss?

Governments and large businesses are notoriously populated by Guardians who are charged with keeping the mechanics of the system functioning in a safe and reliable way. From a Guardian’s standpoint, Rebels like Andrei are often viewed with resentment and mistrust. Why?

Rebels don’t stay in their lanes. In the case of Philly Fighting COVID, this group of 20-somethings had virtually zero health background that would appear credible to a Guardian. Rebels easily drift across traditional boundaries, successfully cross-pollinating ideas that work in one setting into totally different environments.

Rebels are obsessed with the work itself, often at the expense of rules or relationships. Philadelphia’s department of health claimed that Andrei turned the company into a for-profit entity “behind its back” and that they changed the data privacy policy on its vaccine interest form, which would enable it to sell the data to third parties.

“For Philly Fighting COVID to have made these changes without discussion with the city is extremely troubling,” a statement read. “As a result of these concerns, along with Philly Fighting COVID’s unexpected stoppage of testing operations, the health department has decided to stop providing vaccine to Philly Fighting COVID.”

“Who Exactly is Philly Fighting COVID?” Philly Mag

Let’s peel away the layers of accusations (which I can’t comment on) to focus on a couple key phrases here: “Made these changes without discussion with the city” and making decisions “behind its back.” Now, I know the optics look bad, but bear with me here…

From what I know about gifted adults with a strong fairness gene (and especially if they have shades of Asperger’s, which can show up as benign cluelessness), I might give Andrei the benefit of the doubt. Actual guilt or innocence aside, I’m convinced that he’s also on trial for simply being a Rebel — moving fast, making decisions on the fly based on what’s needed in the moment, and failing to slow down to ensure he’s checking all the boxes and bringing people along.

God knows I’ve been guilty of this at many points in my career, and have been punished for it. I’ve had people make incorrect assumptions about my intentions based on behavior that was interpreted through a neurotypical lens. One company value from my last employer that I most appreciated: “assume positive intent.”

Despite our fairness gene, we can also completely miss opportunities to pull in oft-overlooked minority collaborators. Andrei failed to connect with Ala Stanford, an experienced physician who founded the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium and had been performing tests in Philadelphia’s black communities for months. I’m not saying this is OK by any means; I simply know from my own personal “benign cluelessness” — flying too fast while focused on only on the work — that I’m reluctant to assign a guilty verdict to Andrei’s motive without deeper understanding.

Rebels can be sloppy. We’re usually not good at managing details. Our errors aren’t usually intentional; we simply let what we deem “small stuff” drop through the cracks as we’re chasing the bigger objectives. But small stuff to Rebels are actually quite significant to Guardians, and our apparent carelessness can erode credibility and trust.

“Philly Fighting COVID has submitted three separate invoices that were rejected due to incomplete documentation and duplicative time sheets…. We will only pay out for legitimate costs incurred by the provider.”

Jim Garrow, Philadelphia health department spokesperson

Rebels can be blindsided by lack of trust.

We’re moving forward, flowing and playing in the open space of possibility, experimenting what what generates the best outcomes, and loving this work, this dance — and if you’re not a Rebel, believe me when I say this is one of the highest, purest forms of enjoyment possible for us — when BAM: we’re hammered with accusations about how we’ve screwed up.

“I don’t understand why people are freaking out about this kind of stuff… We just vaccinated 2,000 more people this weekend. We only care about vaccinating people.”

Andrei Doroshin

Suddenly our joyful, purposeful play is reframed as failure: failing to respect the rules, failing to keep someone in the loop, failing to stay in our lanes, failing to have the right credentials, failing to create the intended outcome because we moved too fast and didn’t bring people along.

This lack of trust and the resulting feelings of failure take their toll.

After a number of these encounters we might “learn our lesson:” to stuff ourselves into a box and apply the mask, diligently and fearfully, trying to conform into a Guardian system that can’t understand or appreciate us for what we bring to the party. It can create intense feelings of depression and self-rejection until we learn to love our unique wiring despite the world’s messages to the contrary.

Guardians feel misunderstood as well.

This story helped me understand and value the role of the Guardian. I imagine that the pleasure that Rebels take in “dancing in the possibility space” is the same emotion that Guardians feel when constructing and working within systems designed for safety and predictability.

When Andrei celebrated throwing the old model out the window, he essentially trashed the work of countless Guardians who worked to iteratively refine a model that had a long track record; it was proven and safe. And given his lack of healthcare experience, he didn’t have the credibility to challenge the system. Andrei essentially slapped these Guardians in the face, and they slapped him in return.

What’s the solution?

I prefer to Start with WHO, not Why. First and foremost, we need to understand ourselves and each other.

Throughout my years of research into human motivation, emotion is the biggest predictor of behavior. And not just any emotion: the most impactful levers are the emotions connected to our 12 core needs like Security, Freedom, or Belonging. I feel safe, free, connected, impactful, seen, etc. — these feelings are how we know our needs are met.

Each human being has a unique set of “motivational DNA:” the handful of core needs and emotions that uniquely define how we see the world and make decisions. Rebels are primarily motivated by Autonomy (“don’t box me in!), and Guardians by Security. This tension between Autonomy and Security is at the root of countless battles, not least of which is the current political environment in the US and Britain.

Thing is, we need both. Rebels continually push the system to improve; Guardians ensure that change can be made in the safest, most reliable way. Is it even possible for them to meet in the middle?

Rebel and Guardian are just two of 33 Archetypes that I use in my work. Other Archetypes like Mediator or Unifier can play a critical role in creating the conditions for collaboration that celebrate both paths and navigate the third way forward. This third role is essential; too many Rebels simply don’t have the patience or social skills required for this human-centric integration. We’re usually off working on the next possibility that’s captured our interest.

What about you?

Where do you fall on the Rebel/Guardian spectrum? I’d love to hear stories about what’s worked within your organizations to bridge this gap.

PS. Read the full article in Philly Magazine and let me know what you think about my assessment.

PPS. If your organization is facing cultural friction in the face of change, let’s talk about how Starting with WHO — along with my Inner Compass process — can help you find common ground.

Authenticity, transparency and vulnerability: What’s the difference?

I’m having a hard time writing about this topic. must admit, the last presidential debate was pretty horrifying. We all watched the leader of the US of A, ranting and interrupting and bullying in a tragic example of authenticity.

According to Vanity Fair, “Trump doesn’t accept the consensus that the debate was a disaster because, sources said, he was unabashedly himself.

In other words, he was authentic. The genuine Trump. The real deal.

He was also completely transparent: he wasn’t trying to hide behind convention or be someone he’s not, which is often why his supporters say they like him.

But vulnerable? No way. Vulnerability requires self-awareness in the context of other human beings. It’s the feeling we get when we’ve perhaps revealed too much of ourselves, or we’re afraid to reveal out of fear of being judged.

Authenticity is the truth of who we are, whereas transparency is the degree to which we reveal that truth. From opaque to translucent to transparent, we make judgement calls on how much we can reveal, to whom, and when.

Alone on a desert island, we’d all be authentic and fully transparent. We could run around naked, shout expletives at the sky, and be as weird as we wanted without any sense of vulnerability. I suppose that can describe narcissists as well.

But of course none of us live on desert islands.

It’s not all or nothing

We all yearn to bring our whole selves to work, because the energy required for mask upkeep is exhausting. All eyes are on the leaders to model the level of transparency that’s acceptable within the culture.

Historically there’s been too little transparency, where everyone’s walking on eggshells trying to guess at people’s real identities, emotions and intentions behind the armor and masks.

In an over-correction, the trend now is to let it all hang out. But too much self-transparency can scare the crap out of people and potentially cause you to lose credibility; there’s such a thing as authentically inappropriate. When a plane hits turbulence and everyone’s watching the crew, it’s wise to keep imposter syndrome under wraps.

I’m not so sure about this vulnerability trend; vulnerability is intimate; it can’t be forced. It’s a guide, not a goal. Instead of being caught in duality of all or nothing, perhaps there’s a third way.

The third way: Translucent

Being mindfully transparent is about revealing our humanity without pointing out the hair growing out of the wart. Transparency is potent stuff: we need to know the right dosage, the right degree of “see-through-ness” or translucency for the situation. What’s the right degree? That depends on an awareness and understanding of both ourselves and our listeners. 

It requires an exploration of the intersection between ME and THEY… which, of course, is WE. It’s about balancing relatability and truth with confidence.

  • ME: What is the most genuine version of me? What am I feeling right now? What do I need? This self-listening and self-validating step helps ground us in our truth. It’s about being vulnerable with ourselves first, so that it can be transmuted into strength.
  • THEY: Who are my (peers, team, partner, etc.) as human beings, not titles? How do they feel now? How do they want to feel? How comfortable are they with emotion? What do they need from me? These answers come from empathy and deep listening. 
  • WE: Within the context of our shared humanity, what’s my role as a leader in moving us towards our collective desired state? What’s one story I can tell that establishes a human connection? What do I say (or how do I say it) to earn both relatability and trust?

Start with who.

This is all part of the process I call Start With WHO. So much business discussion is focused on why (purpose), what we do and how we do it. But so few start with who: Who am I as a leader? Who are my peers and colleagues and customers, and what shared identity bonds us together?

A leader doesn’t build a product or a department or a company: he or she builds a sense of belonging by magnetizing a tribe of diverse individuals who come together because they’re wired similarly. The similarities may be purpose, or it may be identity, values, or needs. Rebels, travelers, change-makers, connectors, security-seekers, DIYers, catalysts… when we start with an authentic who, beginning with leadership, everything else falls into place.

Within this tribe, we can safely drop the masks. We can model a greater degree of transparency, showing our genuine selves, because we’ve created a safe space for people just like us. The uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability are diminished; we know we won’t be judged. This still doesn’t mean we can let it all hang out in a vulnerability-induced verbal vomit that shakes people’s confidence, but it sure simplifies where to draw the line.

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Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

VIDEO: Harnessing the power of emotion in life and work

In my last video, I talked about relying on Sensing Mind — our body-based wisdom — to navigate life like a bat. In this video, I build on the Whole Mind model, talking about Connecting and Feeling Minds. How did Steve Jobs use both to create the first $1T company? How did Dr. Martin Luther King embody these mind modes in an entirely different way?

What can you learn from these very different leaders? I’d love to hear from you.

If you’re interested in creating your own inner compass to figure out your next chapter of life, click here for more.

If you’d like to nurture the power of Sensing and Feeling to develop your Whole Mind potential as a leader, visit our Groundbreaking program site for more. This is an experiential group “practice space” for bringing more humanity to work.

Developing Whole-Mind Leadership

Since Rene Descartes developed Rationalism back in the early 1600s, we in the Western world have put the logical, analyzing mind on a pedestal. According to Descartes, “reason alone determined knowledge, and that this could be done independently of the senses.” He also argued that the mind is separate from the body.

Today we see the effects of Descartes’ left-brain worship. Organizations are fragmented into departmental boxes and org charts. The healthcare profession is fragmented and specialized, rarely treating individuals as a whole. Schools teach subjects in isolation from one another, teaching kids from an early age that compartments are king.

But is this how we really work? Humans, organizations and societies are complex systems with feelings and vulnerabilities… interconnected wholes that cannot be reduced into pieces and parts. The consequences of the rationalist approach can be seen everywhere, but let’s stick with the ones for business:

  • sterile and soul-killing cultures, which kill employee loyalty
  • fragmented customer experiences, which kill customer loyalty
  • proliferating and competing strategies, which kill efficiencies and forward momentum
  • businesses rewarded for measurable short-term gains at the expense of the broader society and environment in which they operate

becoming whole humans

The outer world is fragmented because we’ve chopped ourselves up on the inside. Individuals who aren’t comfortable in their bodies retreat to the perceived safety of the brain; those who are comfortable in the realm of body, emotion and intuition reject the structure of the analytical mind. We’ve cut ourselves into two, with perilous consequences.

Insanity is, of course, doing the same things over and over again while expecting a different result. It’s time for a new approach: one that works with our humanity and the laws of nature instead of against them… one that embraces our whole selves and all the modes of intelligence that reside within.

The Whole Mind model recognizes that what we call “the mind” does not reside solely in our brains. Did you know that we have 100 million neurons in our guts? We have a felt wisdom in our bodies that has evolved over millennia. Logic and planning was the last to emerge, and must work in harmony with our other intelligences for us to be fully, humanly complete.

The model includes two brain-based modes (analyzing and connecting), two body-based modes (feeling and sensing), and a fifth that I call Orchestration: a meta-mode that knows when and how to use the other four.

If you have strength in….

  • Analyzing: You’re comfortable with structure, compartments and processes, and tend to make dramatic improvements in efficiencies. Structured thinking is also an effective way to gain clarity, solve problems, and prioritize actions and investments.  
  • Connecting: Thanks to pattern-matching and divergent thinking, you can see things that Analyzing can’t: the gestalt, the “third way” beyond binary options, and innovative approaches borrowed from other sectors and contexts. This is the source of rapid intuition based on prior experience.
  • Sensing: You fully inhabit your body. You have a grounded energy and can feel “yes” and “no” intuitive responses; this inner barometer is rarely wrong. You likely have a strong presence that others can feel when you walk into a room. Check out this video where I explain how to use Sensing Mind to navigate like a bat.
  • Feeling: You’re deeply in touch with their own emotional world, and more likely to be empathetic in their work and personal lives. You can be more responsive rather than reactive: a powerful trait for a leader. Check out this video where I go into more detail on how Jobs and Dr. King mastered this mode.
  • Orchestrating: You have all the mind modes in their toolbox, and know when and how to apply them based on the context.

I stumbled into this model unintentionally. My brain is naturally wired for Connecting: lateral, emergent thinking. I can see patterns, the gestalt, and how everything is connected. But when I went to work at a management consulting firm, Connecting was beaten out of me in favor of a linear, logical approach that fit the PowerPoint factory process. I learned the Analyzing mode.

But I was a brain on a stick: all my energy was in my head, having disconnected myself from uncomfortable emotions in the body caused by trauma. I had no idea how to work with emotions, and the concept of somatics — body-based wisdom — was utterly foreign to me. Fast forward through a lot of coaching, therapy, 15 years of meditation, what finally did the trick were simple exercises that I now use in my own coaching practice.

  • Learning how to listen to my inner wisdom: what yes and no feel like in my body
  • Learning how to recognize and label emotions that arise
  • Following what lights me up and brings me joy
  • Stepping off the endless stress of the corporate hamster wheel to forge my own path that’s true to who I am.

I’ve developed all four mind modes, plus the ability to Orchestrate: in other words, to recognize which mode is needed given the context. This is a bit like having more tools in the toolbox and knowing how to wield each one. The most effective business and life strategies use all four Modes, which I’ll talk about further in a separate piece.

Leadership redefined

This model is highly relevant for leaders who want to bring more humanity into the workplace, improving culture and boosting loyalty of employees and customers. These are leaders who I call rebels with a cause: rejecting “business as usual” in favor of a new approach that creates the ripple effects of change well outside the bounds of their teams and companies… and unlocks the freedom to be our whole selves at work, which is how we thrive together.