Servant Leadership Can Help You Overcome Imposter Syndrome Once and for All

Establish trust. Build consensus. Embrace risk. The most effective way to manage your fear of failure is to help others succeed.

A woman afraid she may be an imposter or fraud covers her face with blanket
Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you don't deserve your position and haven't earned the accomplishments for which you're applauded. It is especially prevalent among individuals in new leadership positions and those in the midst of a professional transition, such as a new career, position or promotion.

You're finally beginning to make some headway in your career. You've been offered a promotion or are regularly recruited on LinkedIN. And yet you can't seem to shake the thought that you're not as capable as everyone else seems to think you are. You feel like your job isn't that difficult, that most anyone with similar experience could pull it off at least as effectively. You may be suffering from imposter syndrome.

A Sinking Feeling

Many professionals are familiar with the psychological phenomenon called imposter syndrome, the feeling that you don't deserve your position and haven't earned the accomplishments for which you're applauded. First articulated by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, the feeling is characterized by a persistent anxiety that you'll be discovered as a fraud. It is especially prevalent among individuals in new leadership positions and those in the midst of a professional transition, such as a new career, position or promotion.

Imposter syndrome can be debilitating, causing stress, procrastination, and burn-out. It can prevent you from rising to the level of creativity and achievement that you and your team deserve.

Unaddressed, imposter syndrome can cause your career to stagnate while you waste time trying to shore up skills at which you’re already proficient, even accomplished. It's difficult to present an air of confidence while you harbor a secret, sinking feeling that you don't belong.

The good news is you're not alone. Despite the fact that millennials are increasingly taking on leadership roles, a full 70% of them experience the phenomenon. High achievers are particularly vulnerable, but research as far back as the early '80s shows that anyone who fails to internalize their own success can begin to perceive themselves as imposters.

What Causes Imposter Syndrome?

Most of us were warned as kids that comparing ourselves to others is an often-pointless endeavor, but it's natural to try and gauge our progress and assess our abilities in the context of our peers’. The difficulty is that we're rarely objective, and we aren't always comparing our performance against the real-life performances of our colleagues.

We sometimes mitigate our self-doubt by taking satisfaction in our desire to be unpretentious, believing it’s a sign of humility to consider ourselves minimally competent. But true humility requires an honest and accurate appraisal of our abilities. Imposter syndrome is characterized by the feeling that you're out of your league despite a lack of corroborating evidence (and sometimes in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary).

We tend to attribute our successes to luck or other factors beyond our control while simultaneously assuming that those we admire have succeeded on skill alone. We set stretch goals and then berate ourselves for failing to meet them, in the process developing very unrealistic ideas of what it means to be competent.

Unrelenting Self-Doubt is Corrosive

Feeling incompetent and being incompetent are two very different things. Still, the persistent belief that others have an inflated perception of our abilities can exert debilitating downward pressure on our performance and our confidence, especially in the area of competent leadership.

How likely are you to take risks, to articulate bold vision or defend a promising but unpopular idea if you're afraid that, at any moment, you could be found out for the fraud you've been perpetrating?

So what can you do if suspect you may be at least as capable and qualified as your colleagues but can't shake the feeling that you're playing at a game designed for someone else? Spend a minute on Google and you'll find ambiguous strategies like, "know the value you provide," and "own your achievements." "Stop comparing yourself to others," we're told, as if we haven't heard that one before.

I imagine these think-positive approaches work for some people, but trying to out-think myself has never been a dependable strategy for me.

Rather, the prescription I recommend is a radical transformation of your approach to and understanding of success.

Fake It or Make It?

“Humility,” according to C.S. Lewis, “is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” Trying to convince yourself you're worthy of your position or authority is only going to reinforce the circular thinking that precipitated your doubts in the first place. Stop trying to be worthy of your authority and start earning it.

Servant Leadership is built on the contention that the only way to inspire a human being’s strongest performance, his highest creativity or her most strategic thinking is within the context of deep trust and unwavering support. Servant leaders speak with the sort of authority no position or promotion can confer because their actions support the values and goals of those they seek to lead.

Seven Ways to Serve First

It’s unlikely you’re going to transform your mindset overnight, but shift your thinking in some of the following areas and you’ll find your focus changing and your confidence growing:

  1. Stop trying to prove your worth and begin trying earnestly to boost the value of others. Dedicate yourself to helping those you serve grow healthier, stronger and more autonomous.

  2. Replace your competitive, independent mindset with a cooperative, interdependent approach. Instead of worrying about whether you're getting enough credit for your work, intentionally give credit to others that have earned it, whenever possible.

  3. Focus less on the speed with which you achieve and more on gaining input and buy-in from all parties. People support what they help create, so you'll find yourself on the defensive less often.

  4. Information is power. Instead of trying to control information to maintain a competitive advantage, share it generously. In doing what's best for the entire team, you allow others to shine and build trust and respect in the process.

  5. Listen sincerely and respectfully to others, especially to those with dissenting opinions. Instead of making all decisions executive decisions, coach the members of your team by providing context and asking thoughtful questions to help them come to decisions on their own.

  6. Remember that accountability is not the same as blame. Decide right now that accountability, for you, involves creating a safe environment for learning and ensuring that all learning is shared, especially mistakes.

  7. Be publicly vulnerable. Own the vulnerability that you feel. Recognize that everyone else feels vulnerable too and use appropriate (even self-effacing) humor to call out your own mistakes and uncertainties. This will create an environment in which others are encouraged to do the same. You'll find its not long before individuals on your team are supporting each other instead of assigning blame.

There’s more to managing self-esteem than staying positive. By embracing a servant approach to leadership—by taking the risk of serving and trusting others first—you’ll find that your colleagues, instead of doubting your competency and challenging your authority, will assume deep proficiency and a wealth of experience. They’ll figure that the only person who would accept such a risk is one who must know what he or she is doing.

By focusing on service before performance, you'll also find yourself worrying less often, especially about your own competence. So quit faking it and start making it.

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