How to Be a Leader When You Have Imposter Syndrome

Figuring out how to be a leader is hard enough without you telling yourself you have no right to be one. Want to overcome your imposter syndrome? Consider these tips.
August 06, 2018

You've probably heard of the term imposter syndrome. It's a phrase that describes that feeling that you don't really belong in an industry or group. It's really just a clever, trendy term for an age-old problem: insecurity over how to be a leader.

Still, it's a real problem. It's hard to take people where you want them to go when a little voice in your head whispers, It's amazing everyone isn't doubling over with laughter at the very idea that you're in charge.

So if you're struggling with how to be a leader, you may want to consider this battle plan.

1. Acknowledge that you don't know everything.

You may feel like an imposter because you feel like people expect you to know more than you actually do. 

Focus less on yourself—your title, your experience, what others may think of you—and focus more on how you can serve your team.

—Christopher Arnold, owner, BRiiO Advisors

That's understandable, but remember: Nobody knows everything. So don't be afraid to admit that, suggests Mark Chussil, an adjunct instructor at the University of Portland and a consultant to Fortune 500 companies through his company Advanced Competitive Strategies.

“People value confidence, but they also value authenticity. If you don't know [something], especially when you're working with people who know more than you, acknowledge that fact," Chussil says.

He adds that your employees probably will recognize if you aren't up to speed on a certain topic, anyway. 

If you're thinking to yourself, “Uh, no. That's not how to be a leader. I'm going to fake it until I make it," Chussil thinks that mindset can backfire.

“You lose credibility," he says, of trying to act like you know it all. He thinks you should admit what you don't know and ask for help, advice, insight or whatever you need.

“Get over the idea that a leader is someone who blusters and thinks he or she knows it all. That's an imposter," he says.

2. Listen to your employees.

OK, so you've acknowledged that you don't know everything. 

Now, if you really want to know how to be a leader, consider taking the time to listen to your employees.

“The best thing you can do when you feel unprepared and insecure, is to listen. By listening, you will gradually learn. With knowledge, comes greater certainty," says Claudia Luiz, a psychoanalyst and author in Tarrytown, New York.

Besides, she adds, if you don't know what you need to know, “you're in the perfect position to listen."

Luiz once worked with a patient who had been hired for a high position in a prominent hospital. And while he knew nothing about leadership going into the job, he came out fine, she says.

“He held meetings with every person he was managing, and let them talk at length. He asked a lot of questions, and because he was such a listener, he became the most respected leader they had ever had," Luiz says.

3. Practice and prepare to discover how to be a leader.

One reason you may not feel confident when leading people may be that you haven't practiced what you're going to say to your employees. 

Not that you need (or have time) to map out what you're going to say to everyone you encounter. But if you're leading a meeting or have an important talk with an employee coming up, and you're worried how you're going to come across, you may want to rehearse, Chussil suggests.

“You can rehearse meetings, not just speeches. Play it out in your mind. And rehearse how you're going to run the meeting," he says. "I always rehearse before a talk, even if I've used the material for years. It helps me get comfortable, it helps me spot rough patches I can fix, it helps me get fluent and, best of all, it helps me relax and smile with my audience. 

"That, in turn," he continues, "produces a positive feedback loop: I'm relaxed, so they relax, and I see they're relaxed and that helps me relax. Just don't relax so much that everyone goes to sleep."

4. Think of yourself as someone with authority, not an expert.

Now, if you are an expert, feel free to think of yourself as both. But often a business owner will manage employees who know far more about a topic than they do. 

Maybe you feel silly giving marching orders to your CFO, when you're not so great with numbers. Or perhaps you feel foolish overseeing IT employees, because you know that if you were asked to do some coding or programming right now because your life depended on it, the best outcome you could hope for is that people would say nice things at your funeral.

But, look, that's okay. If you're truly listening to your employees, you aren't going to give marching orders that don't correspond with reality. 

And, besides, your job as the business owner isn't (or shouldn't be) to boss people around. That's not how to be a leader. You hired people for their expertise to help your business. Your role is to make it as easy as possible for your skilled employees to do a great job, so that your company benefits.

“Think of yourself as a servant leader," suggests Christopher Arnold, an executive coach and the owner of BRiiO Advisors in Denver.

A servant leader?

“Focus less on yourself—your title, your experience, what others may think of you—and focus more on how you can serve your team," Arnold says. “What does your team need to move forward? What obstacles can you remove that stand in their way?"

And if you're removing obstacles so your employees can work better, you may be able to get those imposter syndrome thoughts out of your head. Your team may start to see you as the person who gets things done so that others can flourish. If that sounds more like you're the coach of a team, rather than a business owner, that wouldn't be a bad way to visualize leadership.

And if sports isn't your thing, maybe music is.

According to Arnold, “Being a leader is a lot like being a conductor in the orchestra. You don't play a single note, but you are responsible for ensuring that all the instruments play well together."

Read more articles on leadership skills.

Photo: Getty Images