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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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