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Facing and Overcoming Your Inner Imposter

Even the most accomplished leaders can feel like frauds. Whether it be low self-confidence or deeper insecurity, they simply doubt their competence and feel their success is mainly in fooling those around them.

I noticed it among colleagues when I was a corporate executive, and in the last 10 years, fairly regularly, while coaching others. When it came down to it, many believed they were faking it -- and if people discovered the truth, they'd be horrified.

Of course there are incompetent leaders, and we all know a few. Yet the majority of "frauds" are self-misconceptions that melt away with self-awareness and experience or, if left to fester, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How it evolves

It's a classic trap: many attain positions of increasingly senior leadership as rewards for doing well in their current jobs, rather than for being ready to lead at a higher level.

When taking on a bigger job most of us will quietly notice, "I don't really know what I'm doing yet." Typically, this is appropriate self-awareness, and disappears with training and experience. Those more prone to feeling a fraud may simply forget about the word "yet," and doubt their basic legitimacy in the role.

Then it becomes an increasingly vicious circle over time. They want to appear confident, which they do by hiding their new-in-role lack of proficiency from being "found out." They will either people-please, be arrogant, or autocratic. In each case, it causes a reluctance to seek the information, skills, training, and help from colleagues they need -- all avoided as risky signs of "weakness."

As they starve themselves of needed support in order to show that they know what they're doing, they short-circuit their own competence and actual ability to do a good job. Ultimately, they'll create the exact problem they were trying to hide from others.

What to do about it

1. Understand you're in good company

I find most clients with some level of fraud feelings are relieved to learn they're not alone. It immediately puts their own "fraud" conception in doubt, as it shows they are in the company of extraordinary leaders and successful people everywhere.

2. Tackle -- rather than attempt to hide -- what you don't know

If you are reluctant to avail yourself of help, support, or learning, understand that it may be a result of an attempt to "fake it." It's important to remember in those situations, as John F. Kennedy said, "Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other." Make a list of things you need to learn or understand better, prioritize it, and tackle the items in order, by studying, asking colleagues for help, getting coaching, etc. I've had my senior executive clients do this, and it's worked like a charm.

3. Feelings of fraud can't survive strong self-awareness

Start catching yourself when the direct feeling of fraud, imposter, or fear of "being found out" comes up, and take a mental pause. Recognize that it's a distortion of the situation and dismiss it. As you build your mental muscles to catch and correct it in the moment, it will lose its destructive power. Over time, and with this practice, it becomes a thing of the past.

Feelings of fraud are very common among even the best leaders, and are actually signs of diligence. So unlike other developmental issues that may linger for an entire career, the fraud misconception is resolved by turning that diligence toward the practices I've described above. The good news is that once you've mastered it, you can keep an eye out for it in others, and help them along too. That indeed is leadership in its best sense -- helping yourself and others to learn.