November 19

How having Imposter Complex makes you a better leader

How Imposter Complex makes you a better leader

When things go wrong at work, maybe something the team messes up or someone in the team is being disruptive or not performing, I’ve seen many leaders start to question their own ability, and that can be a good thing - we are accountable for our teams, and we should always be looking for the lessons so we can improve. But sometimes this questioning goes too far and becomes an episode of Imposter Complex.

That’s not the only common time for Imposter Complex to strike - when we are asked to step up and lead a big piece of work, when that big opportunity appears, one of the things that can stop people grabbing it and start them questioning their own ability is Imposter Complex.

And interestingly, when we start a new job or take on that big project a few of months in, most leaders and managers have a wobble, wonder what on earth made them say they would take the role and if they are capable of delivering it. Thank you, Imposter Complex.

In a year where we have all been leading during rolling waves of change, almost all of us have been experiencing that wobble and wondering if we are capable to do what we need to for our teams.  Imposter Complex loves certainty and tries to protect us from change so has been having a ball this year!

When we do experience Imposter Complex, and there is a very high chance you will at some point, it won’t feel like it initially, but I believe, it’s a good thing.

 So are you ready to get curious about Imposter Complex and make some choices about how to make the most of it when it strikes?



Why is having an Imposter Complex episode a good thing?

Imposter Complex can be a mischievous and very determined thing. We all hear those nagging internal voices of self-doubt and fear sometimes, and when we are experiencing Imposter Complex, they both start shouting so loud that it can be hard to hear any of our other thoughts.  Imposter Complex is when those voices convince our brains that we are a fraud, and we are bound to get found out and found out fast.  When you are experiencing an episode of Imposter Complex you doubt your own abilities despite all the external proof of your capabilities, after all, you reason, that’s just another opportunities to get caught out, further to fall and more people to fall in front of!

So what if I was to tell you that experiencing Imposter Complex is a good thing and it is something that can help make you a great leader?

You may well be wondering how something that makes you feel so bad can be a good thing so let me explain.

Firstly, Imposter Complex only happens when something matters to you, so it shows you care about what you are doing – and that is a great thing!

More than that it helps us to stay curious and open to new information and without that we are never going to be great at what we do, be able to come up with new and better solutions or to adapt to our surroundings – all skills we always need as leaders and which this past year has reminded us are critical in all areas of our work.

Choose your response to Imposter Complex

It all comes down to how we respond when it strikes – are we going to avoid and abdicate and become a victim of it, letting it control what we do or are we going to get curious, inquisitive and learn what we can from it and use the opportunity for growth as a leader that Imposter Complex has hidden within it?

 All the great leaders I know and all the ones I have had the privilege of working with have at times experienced self doubt, that awareness that they may not know everything they need to know about a situation, their specialism or their skills.  

Take for example one senior leader I was working with who was putting together a big global conference.  He was a really great communicator in these situations in my experience, but he was really clear that he didn’t necessarily know everything he needed to know and he was open to more information as part of his managing his fear and his nerves about being in that kind of situation.  So he made sure he had as much practice time as everybody else and as much input from other people about his presentation. And it wasn’t just about him being humble.  It’s not just about being humble, it’s a genuine understanding that there is always more to learn, more to discover and to do to be the best we can be.  

That curiosity and that thirst for knowledge when coupled with a realistic assessment of where we are, being conscious of our incompetences is the springboard that keeps us moving upwards.  

The trick her is to not to loose sight of our competencies, all the things we do know when we are looking at all the things we don’t.  When we let that happen we can become tethered by the strong bind of Imposter Syndrome.  If we think of the things we do know about a situation we can use them as building blocks that show us what we need to get curious about and learn about next.

Make friends with your Imposter Complex

I find it helpful to think of Imposter Complex as an annoying friend, one who speaks up when I don’t need them to, but who may have spotted something important – you know the one who gives you some feedback that you don’t want to hear but when you think about it there is some truth in there! To remind me that I don’t have to believe everything this friend says I have given it a silly voice – it’s much harder to just accept what its saying when its talking like Donald Duck!

In making friends with Imposter Complex it has helped me to realise that it is motivated by a desire to protect us.  By stopping us from doing something it protects us from failure – after all if you don’t do something you can’t fail.  By getting us to question what we know it reminds us that there are things we don’t yet know and those things may be important and by making us feel isolated it protects us from other people telling us we have failed or are wrong.

Now while there is a logic to that, it’s not a logic that is going to allow us to be great or even effective leaders, so we need to learn to manage this friend constructively.

Managing our Imposter Complex Friend

So how can we do that?

The first step is to recognise that when Imposter Complex shows up there is an opportunity to pause, reflect and see what it is there to show you.  Once you have worked that out you can make some choices about incorporating what you have found or not.  So, get curious and ask yourself what is behind this episode of Imposter Complex, what is causing you to feel that way and what is this feedback trying to tell you.  It’s also worth questioning the validity of what this so-called friend is telling you – is their opinion based on facts or does the bulk of the evidence in fact point to your competence in an area.  What lessons can you learn from what this is telling you?

Now remembering that our Imposter Complex friend is trying to protect us from failure by stopping us taking action, we need to find a way to take some action.  If Imposter Complex has shown up around a big project or a new job, what are the first actions that we CAN take to get us moving in the right direction?  Breaking things down into smaller actionable steps and taking them one at a time can help you make great progress and build your confidence while quietening that nagging over protective friend.

In the same way Imposter Complex is trying to protect us by keeping us safe and where we are by not taking action, another of it’s motivations is to isolate us so we don’t fail in front of others.  What if you turned this around too and actively spent time around others who would support you and who may be going through the same thing?  We have so many things leaving us feeling isolated at the moment let’s not let Imposter Complex be another.  As a leader, as someone who is building something it is always OK to ask for help and to ask people for their perspectives on something.  Being curious about other people’s views means you can collaborate effectively and grow together, not feeling isolated.  As a leader fostering these ways of collaborating are part of how you build relationships and team performance. 

The other thing that our Imposter Complex friend is keen to do is to show us how little we know.  And being open to more learning, new ideas and different ways of thinking is brilliant, but we need to have a way of making sure we don’t loose sight of the things we do do well, of the evidence there is of our competence and of the difference we make.  One powerful way of doing this is to keep a books of wins, a journal of your accomplishments and positive feedback that you can look back over when you need a reminder.  This can be an actual book, a folder on your computer or in the cloud, what ever works best for you.  The very act of collecting them will help reinforce them in your mind so when you need the boost a quick look at your book of wins will make a big difference.

Getting help with our Imposter Complex

The other thing you can do when you are experiencing Imposter Complex is to get some coaching from someone who will help you explore these themes for yourself - avoid coaches who will focus on how they solved it for themselves or give you their special system for building confidence. If it’s imposter complex, or even a more general confidence issue, you already have the answers and you need a coach to help you piece together what is going to work for you.

The same is true for more general confidence issues, so make sure you get curious about what you need before paying for coaching. Find out about any coaches you are considering working with and check that they are going to work with you in such a way that you become reliant on them for your confidence - that’s not going to help you long term. I’ve worked with people who were feeling very vulnerable about their leadership thanks to Imposter Syndrome and who jumped at the first coach they found who promised them confidence and who at best got nothing from the experience and at worst were made to feel terrible about themselves and whose healthy imposter syndrome became a long term issue that impacted all areas of their life - so please choose your coach wisely. And in case you are wondering about those people, it took a few sessions, but they are now back on track.

To give you an example, this episode will have given you some insights into how I work on when someone comes to me with imposter complex, and the kind of areas we will explore. Often, we can get to the heart of the issue fast and people leave the session feeling ready to make a difference, with an action list and wondering why they were worried in the first place. When the issues are more deep seated or more complex it may take a couple of extra sessions, and I always suggest a follow up session towards the end of the persons action plan so they can capture what they have learned about managing those nagging voices of doubt ready for the next time they decide to show up.

If having listened to this episode you want to get more curious about Imposter Complex itself I can recommend checking out Tanya Geisler’s work.  I had the pleasure of chatting with her and found her insights and ideas really helpful.  She talks and writes about Imposter Complex at TanyaGeisler.com

Summary & Taking Action

So in this episode, we have looked at what Imposter Complex is, how it can strike any of us at any time and how we have a choice to make about how we respond.  Are we going to let it keep us where we are, become a victim or use it as a friendly reminder that there is something we need to get curious about, a chance to explore and understand ourselves and our situation better and a chance to make even better choices as we lead our way through the circumstances we find ourselves in?  We looked at how treating Imposter Complex as a difficult team member who cares but always sees the worst in a situation, we can find ways of managing it, of using it to help us think more deeply and learn and grow for our future.

The things I share in this podcast are based on my experience of over 30 years leading change and working with leaders who are making changes happen.  Some of it will be more relevant to you than others and it's up to you to decide what you are going to do with them. My hope is that you will find something you can take and apply. But that's up to you and it's exactly what being a Curious Choice Leader is all about, getting curious, building your understanding and then making some choices about what's best for you, your team and your business.

So the question I would like to leave you with is

What is your Imposter Complex trying to tell you?

If you found this episode useful and thought-provoking I would love it if you subscribe and share it with others who you think would find it useful too. It would also be brilliant if you could leave a review where ever you listen to podcasts

If you would like to know more about my coaching and implementing these ideas please get in touch and let's talk about how you can become an even better leader, one curious choice at a time. Thank you for listening, and until the next time stay curious and I look forward to talking to you again soon.



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