Leaders who have impostor syndrome

The need to provide reassurance and instill hope, while we need to reassure ourselves, creates the perfect conditions for the impostor syndrome, which many leaders know well, of being exposed as a fraud.

Rallying the troops when you feel exhausted and stressed is a recipe for self-doubt. Here's how to combat it.

When Prince Albert, the second son of King George V, was unexpectedly called upon to assume the throne after his brother's abrupt abdication, no one told him that “just be yourself”. He had a severe stutter, and it was the 1930s when radio broadcasts were becoming an important communication channel for the royal family.

As depicted in “The King's Speech,” the Academy Award-winning film on the subject, Prince Albert was neither eager nor prepared to ascend the throne and take on such a public-facing role. However, he managed to take on the task at hand when it was of vital importance to the country.

The truth is, all leaders are people too, and like everyone else, they are exhausted, stressed, scared, and unsure of the best path forward. But a leader exercises power and is responsible for the results of others. And especially in a time of crisis and uncertainty, people look to leaders for security. To be effective, you must play the role and act like the leader everyone needs you to be.

The key is to find a way to bridge the gap between your authentic self, the self that needs reassurance, and your responsible self, which is capable of providing reassurance to others.

Important roles come with authority, status and power. They give us the right and responsibility to tell others what to do. But the need to provide reassurance and instill hope, while we need to reassure ourselves, creates the perfect conditions for the imposter syndrome, which many leaders know well, of being exposed as a fraud.

It's not uncommon, when you feel like an imposter, to overdo it, try to show strength and throw our weight around, or step out of character for a minute and preemptively expose your own weakness. It may reduce anxiety temporarily, but being “authentic” in this way doesn't help anyone else. Despite calls for greater transparency, no one wants to see the uncertainty and emotional toll of a crisis taking place behind the curtain.

The idea that we could change our behavior in response to the expectations of others, or “act out” in some way makes many leaders uncomfortable. But in his well-known book The presentation of the self in everyday lifeErving Goffman described how “being yourself” is, also essentially, a performance.

We are all motivated to show ourselves in the best light possible, he argued, and doing so requires effort and planning. Acting, then, is not trying to be someone you are not. No one wants to “be” someone else in a leadership role. We want to be ourselves, only better. And by adopting an actor's mindset, by seeing leadership as a role we play in a larger story, we can all find ways to step forward.

Even if you don't have answers, you'll need to demonstrate a clear sense of purpose and direction, and a steady hand on the wheel. Instead of worrying about the power you don't have, embrace the power you do have and show that you know how to use it.

When preparing to address the troops, the key is to find a way to bridge the gap between your authentic self, the self that needs reassurance, and your responsible self, which is able to provide reassurance to others.

An easy place to start is to acknowledge to yourself that, regardless of role, everyone has moments of deep insecurity. When imposter syndrome rears its ugly head, instead of allowing your own self-conscious feelings to absorb all your attention, it can be much more helpful to shift the focus of your attention to those around you. When we give our full attention to the feelings of others, we have the secondary benefit of quieting our own.

Kay Kostopoulos, an acting professor I've worked with for years at Stanford, instructs actors to use a mantra to help them stay focused on stage and silence the voices inside their heads. Instead of thinking thoughts like “I'm terrified. I can't wait to get this over with.”either “There are so many things I don't know”. Proof “I'm here for you. We can do this” Or this favorite that a seasoned executive shared with me: «I'm glad to be here and I know what I know«.

It is important to intentionally think positively in these moments of real fear and negativity, to avoid inadvertently appearing cold, anxious, or hostile.

Groups often use rituals and ceremonies to enact roles and mark role transitions; think of a coronation or inauguration. The public nature of these events makes the expectations explicit: the role occupant will assume the responsibilities that come with the role, and in return, the rest of the world will treat the role occupant with the necessary respect. This aligns perspectives: when we play our part, this gives others permission to play their part. And when we witness others treating us as if we are in charge, we can begin to internalize that reality.

To play your role as a leader in a crisis, you must show up in character, as often as possible. Take note of how our country's political leaders are holding press conferences every day and how many people are watching these briefings even when not much new information is being shared.

When it comes to imposter syndrome, the natural instinct is to hide, reduce the risk of exposure, or wait until you're sure you know what to say. A more effective approach is to make a point to show up and simply do your part. It's not a matter of faking it until you make it. It's about accepting social reality and agreeing to play the game.

We often think that speaking more, with speed and energy, conveys greater authority, but in fact the opposite is true. Actors slow down, literally, when playing an entitled character. They speak at a measured pace, in sentences with a clear beginning and end.

They stress their consonants to show control. And they don't run to fill time and space; They are comfortable with pauses and silence (see, for example, the book Impro by Keith Johnstone).

King George VI wasn't supposed to be king, it was a job his older brother had been groomed for. But when the time came, he took his responsibility seriously. His natural way of speaking wasn't suitable for the job, so he worked on it with a speech therapist. King George VI was loved as a monarch; his reputation was not affected at all by his decision not to be authentic.

When you rise to a position of power, you can focus less on whether or not you should be there and more on letting others know: “I have it”. And to mitigate imposter syndrome, take comfort in the wisdom of Colin Powell: «Sometimes you have to accept that others know better than you what you are capable of».