If you’ve ever been in any sort of leadership position, you’ve probably felt at least a twinge of the imposter syndrome. It’s that feeling where you don’t really know exactly how to do the job, you aren’t sure of how get good results, and you’re a little suspicious everyone sees you sweating a bit. You sense people around you are looking at you for the answers, answers that you don’t actually have. We’ve all been there.
In a recent interview with Emily McAuliffe, I got a lesson in how to work through the Imposter Syndrome in the right way. A lot of new leaders will just power through and put their heads down and “fake it”. Mature leaders, wise leaders who have been through the wringer a few times will handle it in a more collaborative, productive way. “You know that best,” Emily will say to her team. “I’m gonna come to you and you’re gonna help me figure out what the best thing is here.” She actually leads the effort to get the answer vs. scrambling to come up with it herself.
In some ways, that pattern is a marker on a person’s path from individual contributor to actual leader. The person standing in front of the room sweating the feeling of not having the answer, pretending to know it, is still, in a lot of ways, an individual contributor pretending to be a leader. Mature leaders understand that the feeling of “not knowing” is really a signal, a sign that they are needed in a different way, to step up as a guide and supporter for their team. Their job is get the team to deliver the answer. Discomfort becomes a call to action, not the start of a shame spiral.
There’s a different kind of confidence that can come from being the facilitator. According to Emily, “Confidence doesn’t mean having to be the loudest voice in the room, or the one with the right answers all the time; that confidence is knowing how to draw other people out to get to the right idea and to get to the right answer, and to recognize that good ideas come from everywhere. They can come from very junior people within the organization and your opportunity as a leader is to amplify that and to build on it and to help their ideas gain traction within the organization.”
Leaders like Emily embrace the collaborative approach and make it part of their personal growth plans. “Each job transition I’ve had, I’ve gotten more comfortable with something that was uncomfortable for me in the previous role.” But it’s not easy. An insight that Emily shared really resonated with me. She said, “It takes a really long time to get there, especially if you are driven, type A, really defined by your work and what you do for a long time, which is what I’d always been. I’d always felt the pressure to be the person with all the answers.”
Making a shift to a more collaborative approach requires vulnerability and a willingness to find satisfaction and value in a different kind of work. And, it requires an openness to work well with your new peers. For Emily, the move to a strong, super talented leadership team helped her accelerate her style. She was “partnered with a really incredible peer group of leaders [at her new company] and learned so much from them, not only about what it meant to operate inside the bounds of a more corporate structure like that, but also how to leverage their expertise and their knowledge to get better what it was I was trying to accomplish.
Ultimately, what came through in the conversation with Emily was the importance of being self-aware and being willing to adapt, change and grow when you’re in a new situation. Being vulnerable enough to ask yourself, “Is it time to try a different approach here?” and having the confidence to actually do it are important milestones for leaders who are growing in effectiveness and maturity. I think we got through the whole conversation without mentioning a “growth mindset”, but I sure got the strong sense of what it looks like to be a leader who is energized by growing and improving over time.