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Feeling like an imposter as a leader

Aged 20 I sat in a room filled with entrepreneurs and introduced myself.

I was surrounded by other founders older than me and more experienced than me. Two had worked at Facebook and Google. Others had started businesses before. Most had families with kids. I was 20 and still learning how to cook and clean for myself. I felt like an imposter. 

For the first five years of my career both naivety and arrogance were my coping mechanisms with the stresses of being in positions of leadership. Youthful exuberance gave me a fearlessness and a “what’s the worst that could happen?” attitude. Arrogance was my way of avoiding my feelings of insecurity. 

Over the last five years I’ve heard imposter syndrome used more and more as our conversations around mental health have increased. My experience is that feeling like an imposter has been a result of different dynamics at different times. 

At times I’ve doubted myself and lacked confidence, therefore felt like a fraud and not capable of leading a person, team or project. I’ve not felt good enough to be in the position I was in and I didn’t believe in myself.

These feelings have either been at the surface or they’ve run quite deep. Sometimes I’ve been able to take a look at myself in the mirror, give myself a pep talk in the shower and seize the day. At worst, my feelings of unworthiness and ‘not being good enough’ have gone so deep that they’ve held me back almost entirely. 

Imposter syndrome takes on many forms. In my latest experience of leadership, that new form was feeling like I lacked credibility amongst what I perceived as more intelligent or more experienced peers. As a CEO I began to feel paralysed when a member of our coaching team would challenge me. “Who was I to disagree? They’re experts!” I got myself tangled worrying about if I was wrong and others were right. I was an imposter, so who was I to lead these people who knew more than me?

As I’ve grown in my career and met more and more exceptionally talented people who’ve achieved great things, these feelings have subsided as I’ve grown in confidence and maturity. Yet they’ve stayed with me too, as the bar at which I operate only became higher.

Take an investment round as an example. Money is another fertile ground for imposter syndrome, as I might have doubted what I was worth financially or what my company was. 

As a young able bodied, heterosexual, white man I am privileged to walk into most rooms and not feel like an imposter for being there. In the industries I’ve worked in, most people look like me. As a result, I’ve been gifted an unearned confidence that I was born with. And still, there are environments and places where I feel like a fraud. Growing up in a poor working class area, there are clubs I don’t feel a part of, and there’s an air of confidence around money and leadership that I don’t always attain. 

I believe everyone feels like an imposter as a leader at times and in certain environments. Some people will feel it more than others. I’ve felt like an imposter time and time again in my life. 

Coaching has changed how I feel. Experience has too. Coaching has helped me to own my power and see who I am as a superpower. When I own those feelings that lead me to feeling insecure, I see the other side. I see that I doubt myself because I care about the decisions I make. I see that I worry because I’m compassionate. I see all of who I am and I’ve grown to accept him. 

Experience alongside that has given me feathers in my cap to remind myself of what I’ve achieved and that I do deserve to be in any room. Yet without coaching I’m not sure I’d have spent the time congratulating and celebrating myself enough. There’s another benefit. 

It’s all these jumbled up feelings around leadership that make me so passionate about leadership coaching with Sanctus. I truly believe there isn’t a leader in the world who wouldn’t benefit (and their teams and colleagues as a result). We’re all human and we all feel stuff. 

Stuff. Simple as that. 

Leadership brings up a lot of that stuff, and when we work through it with a coach we don’t let it hold us back, we can process that stuff so it propels us forward. 

I certainly don’t feel like an imposter writing about imposter syndrome. I’ve had plenty of experience here!

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