The Imposter in Your Head May be the Best Teacher You’ve Ever Had

Imposter Syndrome is usually considered an impediment to career enhancement or a limiter to us achieving our full potential. As if doubts about our abilities, misgivings about whether we are up to the task or wonderment at our own successes are always a bad thing. But is this really the case?

In this 2019 Ted Talk, Mike Cannon-Brookes candidly discusses the reality of Imposter Syndrome during his ongoing development journey with Atlassian. With more than a touch of humour, he recalls the bafflement of acronyms, fearfulness of being asked questions that he didn’t understand and confusion over whether accounts payable meant he was doing the paying, or he was getting paid. He provides refreshing insights into what it’s like, for most of us, grappling with success and the associated things we don’t know.

If underlying self-esteem is already low, which can be the case for many reasons, the impacts of imposter syndrome are likely to be felt more acutely, and it certainly has the potential to hold us back. In extreme cases, imposter feelings may manifest as high anxiety or depression, and it is essential to seek specialist help in these situations.

Fortunately, this is not how imposterism usually shows up and many of the successful leaders we support, navigate their insecurities every day and even have persistent concerns about being ‘caught out’, while still inspiring others and achieving outstanding results. 

In our unguarded moments, many of us may even be wary of those who project an unwavering self-confidence or assume an authoritative position on matters they know little about. The seemingly bullet-proof leader, constantly armoured up and emphatically in control, can create a collective illusion of certainty amongst followers – at least in the short term. But they will likely struggle to create a psychologically safe culture, which enables high levels of participation necessary for success in increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous business operating environments. 

It’s natural to doubt ourselves at times, or pinch ourselves when things go particularly well, especially when faced with unfamiliar challenges or when we’re unexpectedly elevated to positions of authority, and all eyes are on us.

Although there are many exceptions, Brene Brown’s research suggests men predominantly fear being perceived as weak, while women mostly fear being perceived as somehow inadequate when juggling multiple roles of partner, carer, leader etc. The vulnerability associated with being in situations, or rising to heights, where we don’t feel we legitimately belong, can trigger these deep seeded fears.

As always, the key is what we do with the fear. In Cannon-Brookes’ case, he was able to reflect, learn from, and build on these ‘imposter’ events. Having a 50% share in the company may have helped him treat these occasions as growth opportunities. But it could just as easily have added to the pressures of feeling out his depth.

The times when we most strongly feel self-doubt are often signposts pointing to our greatest growth opportunities. Taking steps in these directions can be daunting, but also incredibly liberating. 

So, if success is causing you to feel out of place, it can help to;

  • Listen to the narrative running in your head – the stories you tell yourself that generate these feelings of doubt, 
  • Reflect on the growth opportunities your discomfort is pointing towards, 
  • Make sure you have the support you need from trusted others, or consider teaming up with a coach, and let the imposter in your head be your new best teacher.