Women leaders: overcoming the impostor syndrome

Leaders are grown, not found
May 5, 2016
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Women leaders: overcoming the impostor syndrome

I have coached and mentored numerous women, all with great talent and ambition. I read their CVs and listen to their stories about things they have achieved and the obstacles they have overcome along the way. I am almost always impressed with their courage and determination. I see the leader in them so clearly.

So why are their initial conversations with me typically peppered with misgivings and self-doubts. ‘Am I leader-like enough?’ ‘Do I have what it takes?’ ‘Am I an imposter?’ To be honest, the men I advise and coach rarely express such concerns. We know why – men fit with society’s stereotypes of what the ‘natural’ leader looks like. Women don’t, so they face a daily barrage of reminders of how they don’t measure up.

How can women move forward in their careers with hope and optimism? I suggest we go straight to the heart of things and work on our own attitudes about ourselves. Learn to feel as though we belong – in line management, in the C suite, and at the top of influential organisations. Yes, learn, because it takes time and persistence to get free of the baggage that holds many women back.

Let’s start with the advice of leadership guru, Warren Bennis, who cut through the dross with his simple but credible position. Leadership is a journey of self-discovery. Leaders invent themselves. Women as well as men can do this, even if they have to work harder at it.

The most important part of the process is to build positive self-regard. This happens when we work at bringing out the best in ourselves – while being aware of, and stilling the internal voices that feed self-doubt. Here are Bennis’ three ways to get there:

  • Make your strengths effective and your weaknesses irrelevant. The best leaders identify the things they are good at and accentuate them.
  • Challenge yourself. Leaders are like good athletes, they nurture their strengths by setting stretch goals and getting feedback on progress.
  • Understand the fit between what your organisation requires and what you can contribute. Know how to apply your efforts to get the best outcomes.

This is great advice – a woman with positive self-regard is comfortable in her own skin, realistic about her strengths and limitations, able to trust herself or take sensible risks, and comfortable with points of view that are different from her own. To inspire others we need to be self-affirming. Leaders who constantly doubt or mistrust themselves are in no position to inspire others.

Developing as a leader is both personal and unique. We shouldn’t try to become someone else or mimic a leader we have known and admired. We already have what it takes. Here is some of the advice I give the people I coach to help them through their journey of self-discovery:

  • Understand that growing as a leader is a process of personal transformation.
  • Accept responsibility for your actions and the impact of your behaviour, intended or unintended, on others.
  • Capitalise on opportunities because we learn from experience.
  • Remember that growth comes from reflecting on experience.
  • Seek feedback from others and accept it graciously.
  • Be aware of any negative self-talk that is sapping your confidence.
  • Don’t stay around people who are dragging your down or holding you back.

Be aware of the people around you who want you to succeed. No one expects you to do it alone so be ready to call on your network of supporters. Consider finding a mentor or coach. I have personally seen many women make great strides in this way – it will accelerate your development, too.