Overcoming Leadership Fear: Parkland CLO Paul Rumsey explains The Impostor Syndrome

Paul Rumsey

“Congratulations!  We selected you to become our new leader.”  I remember each time I received that great news of an internal promotion or a position at a new company.  It brought excitement about how I would make a difference and . . . fear that somehow I might not fully be successful.  With each new change brought occasional fear that I may have made the wrong decision in advancing to the next level. 

My internal chatter would have two voices.  One would be, “You’ve earned this and will take this new team/company to the next level.  Your skills are exactly what they need.”  However, sometimes my gut would whisper, “Do you really have what it takes to start over especially at this level?”  I felt this when I first left the academic world and entered the corporate world with a Fortune 20 company.  I felt it again when I changed industries and moved to a VP position in a global Fortune 1000 company.  Although I had a lot of motivation and innovative ideas, I dealt with an impostor syndrome.  This syndrome occurs when a person has the fear of being found out as a fraud—thought that I shouldn’t be at that level or didn’t have the skills needed.  An effective leader will process that fear in a healthy way.  Struggling leaders will let that fear move them into a leadership style of intimidation, assumption, autocracy and politics.

The fear of being an impostor can cause stumbling blocks leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy of leadership failure.  Fortunately, coping techniques can result in a healthy, rewarding leadership style.

Overcoming Isolation with Collaboration

A leader who is afraid of being found out as a fraud gravitates toward isolation and hidden agendas, processing things independently without sufficient stakeholder input.  This isolation creates frustration and fear in those surrounding stakeholders, pushing people toward bad assumptions of what could happen.  Others might question the leader’s motives, especially when early issues arise, eroding any trust they had in that leader.

To overcome isolation, the leader must shift toward intentional, transparent collaboration.  Through collaboration, the leader can maintain full responsibility for setting the strategic agenda and even making key decisions, yet the leader must do so with input from the team, peers and supervisor.  One great way to collaborate is to align with stakeholders on a project’s purpose and success criteria.  That alignment will show others that the leader values teamwork and strategic alignment with the overall organizational direction.  In fact, a seasoned leader can work in a silo just as fast as a new leader, so this alignment remains important for everyone.  I remember several times when I implemented a new program without first getting that alignment.  What I learned the hard way is that involving stakeholders up front provides detail that can proactively mitigate potential risks.

Overcoming Intimidation with Recognition

Often, leaders struggling with the impostor syndrome exert heavy control in an attempt to remove variables that could sabotage their efforts.  They use intimidation to divert attention off their own opportunity areas and onto weaknesses of those around them.  I recall one leader who led by intimidation on the job yet was an amazing individual in his personal life.  We often commented that we would work feverishly for him if his personal-life person came to work.  Instead, he insisted on demeaning others in quarterly business reviews to the point that some would leave the room emotionally drained or even crying.  We dreaded status update meetings because they placed an inappropriate focus on individuals and not process improvement.  Addressing deficiencies through coaching or mentoring can occur in private and process improvement discussions can occur in public. 

Using public recognition, though, will help leaders garner support and will open further innovative ideas from their teams and peers.  Fortunately, I have worked with multiple leaders who defer any praise to their teams and peers.  We all knew that the leader was ultimately responsible, yet our respect for that leader grew exponentially when the leader praised the team.  That external recognition gave the leader a lot of wiggle room if a problem did arise.  A leader who intimidates or keeps the glory during successful times will struggle when a problem arises because few will run to help.

Overcoming Inner Chatter with Positive Affirmations and Action

The imposter syndrome can actually debilitate leaders who cannot overcome that inner chatter of shortcomings and self-defeatism.  They second guess their decisions.  They change their mind near the end of a project and send their teams scurrying around to make last-minute updates.  Either they procrastinate and delay decision making, or they quickly move forward without having all the needed input.  That leader’s mind continues to point out every problem that could arise and creates an unhealthy focus on the worst case scenario instead of on actionable items within the person’s control.

To overcome the inner chatter, leaders can adopt positive affirmations and process potentially negative situations by listing out their greatest fears and developing action items to address those concerns.

FearPotential Negative ResultAction Items
People won’t like me.
They won’t support me.
  • Get their input on ideas during the needs analysis or info gathering stage
  • Give them credit for input
  • Involve them in a pilot
  • Positive Affirmation:  I have earned people's respect for the work I do
I may fail at a big project.
I may lose my job.
  • Get agreement on success metrics
  • Create a list of project deliverables and milestone dates Document potential risks and mitigation strategy
  • Provide status updates to stakeholders to inform of any issues asap
  • Focus on process improvement and not blaming people
  • Hold a project post-mortem to highlight lessons learned and opportunities for process improvement
  • Positive Affirmation:  I communicate and meet success metrics for my projects.

I might sound stupid when I share my ideas in cross-functional meetings.
People will avoid asking for my input or will view me as an expert only in my area.
  • Job shadow other areas to learn their scope, issues and work flows
  • Offer support to address their issues collaboratively
  • Do your research before key meetings so you understand the full dynamic
  • Ask questions if you are afraid to give your input.  Purposeful questions can provide details while showing others your interest
  • Positive Affirmation:  I ask thoughtful questions and provide good insight in meetings and one-on-one discussions.

Putting It All Together

No leader is perfect.  We all have strengths, and we all have opportunities for growth.  Instead of focusing on our shortcomings, strong leaders leverage their strengths.  That positive focus in a team environment produces a culture of respect, trust and collaboration.  Leaders must address their imposter syndrome head on and must help other leaders overcome their own by living their organizational values, setting clear development goals and building a strong support system in a healthy workplace culture.