Confidence in Leadership: How the Imposter Syndrome Can Impact School and District Leaders
“The joke’s on you!” A few years ago, a group of us went out for a celebratory lunch. The celebration isn’t relevant, so I won’t digress, but the picture that we took during that lunch is. At the time there was a trending pose where people on either side of the person in the middle look at the center person, pointing. I happened to be in the middle, with my colleagues evenly positioned on either side, completing that pose to perfection. It was fun and light-hearted at that moment, and I ended up printing that picture out for each of us. It’s sitting on my desk to this day. Yet now, how often do I look at that picture thinking is the joke on me that people view me as a fraud, or is the joke on others that I think that I’m a fraud and fooling them?
Imposter syndrome takes on different masks. By general definition, imposter syndrome is when someone doubts their accomplishments, and fears to be viewed as a fraud despite high achievements.
As leaders, how often do we cover up our previously achieved abilities and accomplishments by taking on a role that we can fall back to using the imposter syndrome as an excuse or crutch.
We project the imposter syndrome differently:
- We can turn it inward exactly by definition.
- We can turn it outward to fool others.
- We can turn it positive with vulnerability when we admit that we are an imposter and acknowledge that we’re learning along the way as a way to unmask our inner imposter.
Which mask do you wear?
As Jaques expressed to the Duke Senior:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages…”
- William Shakespeare, As You Like It [Act II, Scene VII]
We are all players with an entrance into our roles and with an exit out. We may not have a plan on how we enter and exit. We may not even have a plan on how we approach what happens in between. But we will each experience the beginning, middle, and end. It’s how we play those parts that will differ. It’s only through on-the-job experiences that we grow and learn and apply, and attempt to break free from the imposter mask.
Like any good reflection, “let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” Thank you Julie Andrews for teaching us that we all start somewhere.
Not much of what I’ve studied in formal education prepared me for the role I play now. I didn’t graduate with a degree in communications. I took enough psych courses, but didn’t major in the subject. I didn’t master in organizational leadership. Yet, I rely on each of these three areas each day. It’s on the job experience that has become my instruction manual.
Despite my achievements in degree advancements, accepted and requested speaking engagements, and years of experience, I still often doubt my decisions. It’s not that I second guess each and every step, but I do wonder if others do. At the beginning of my speaking engagements, I construct an introduction about who I am and why the audience should listen to me – I end up listing relevant accolades as a desperate measure to further persuade the participants to stay and listen, as if my session description, published résumé, and Twitter feed aren’t enough background.
But these are self-imposed thoughts and paranoia. Not once has someone verbally expressed doubt in me. If anything, I have received constructive feedback and enthusiastic praise to help me grow. We can explore the benefits of feedback another time, but for now, keep in mind that feedback does not have to be a negative experience.
Qualities of leadership include a person knowing when to research how to do something, just like a good DIY project. How many of you looked up how to bake brownies, fix a leaky faucet, knit a hat, or plant a topiary garden? Looking it up on Google or YouTube isn’t scary, but acknowledging to yourself and to others that you don’t know how to do something might be frightening. Why is it acceptable for us to admit not knowing in the privacy of our own homes, but not acceptable when we admit not knowing something in public?
We may enter a role with subject matter expertise, like being a math content expert or understanding a platform to such intricacies that you’re type-cast as knowing only that. As a leader, do you need to have subject matter expertise to lead a team versus leadership expertise? We may no longer act as imposters of having the subject matter expertise, but are we still imposters playing a role that we think someone else could do better or be more deserving? Typecasting impedes growth mindset and may in fact exacerbate the effects of the imposter syndrome. Cast off the mask.
As we enter playing our parts, we are fresh, new, and ambitious. At the start of anything new, many of us begin as leaders in Shakespeare’s fourth stage taking on the role of soldiers:
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.
We have vowed to be the best we could possible be, yet within that oath, we take everything to be important, thinking that everything requires a reaction and solution. We are quick to jump, quick to judge, quick to conclude. Egos and emotions run high, while logic and rationale are off in a far distance. In the beginning, we are imposters of approaching each situation as though we have all the answers. We are too proud to acknowledge that we’re learning along the way.
You found an amazing job description for an adventure you know that you are ready to take on. Rather than making meaning of what a company stands for or what the mission statement is for a school district to confirm that their values align with yours, how many of you go straight to the job description skills to determine if you would qualify?
How many of you said that you can get your ducks in order or assured that you’ve herded sheep before because you knew that you wanted a job, you wanted a chance to do something you haven’t done before all because you have confidence in yourself? Imposter. Today, so many jobs are created to meet the needs of a workplace, to fill the gaps that help drive the mission statement forward. You’re saying that you can do a job that’s never been done before. So who’s fooling whom?
And then you have those impostors who put on the facade that they know everything without having the humility to admit that they do not know and that in fact, they are learning along the way with everyone else. Please be honest and take off your mask.
Impostering with Vulnerability
Like Julie Andrews playing Maria in Sound of Music, she knew that she had no experience in her new role, but she had confidence in herself, and she admitted to her end users that she’ll need lots of help because she knows nothing about being a governess.
Through our time of experience, we transition to the fifth stage:
And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.
Now. I’m not saying that we end up as capons over time, but it’s through time and experience that we reach a level of vulnerability and wisdom to admit that we don’t have all what it takes. We don’t have an instruction manual with all the answers. Admitting not knowing doesn’t come easily. There’s a delicate balance of admitting versus showing your willingness to show. I felt like I was only able to act on my vulnerability after I had a some years of experience and earned some amount of seniority or clout. I refrain from saying respect because being in a position of authority does not equate to respect. With experience, I gained confidence as well because there were enough instances that I was able to adapt and apply from the past. Here, though, confidence should not be conflated with arrogance.
It’s okay to not know every topic as a leader. It’s not okay to avoid calling on help. Know when to call in the experts. Know when you need support to help you lead. Guest speakers are fun and take the pressure off of you. Think back to when you were a student, or a teacher and the guest speaker came to present. It was exotic and entertaining and exciting. That speaker was able to share from experience. From a leadership perspective, it’s sometimes easier to share a message if it’s being heard from someone other than yourself. It’s also an opportunity to show that you are human without all the answers. You are showing your team that it’s acceptable to work collectively to reach a common goal.
But all of this comes from time and experience. And a bit of a fake it until you make it approach as long as you admit to it. No mask.
Manage the Syndrome with a Mentor
Seek a Mentor
Mentorship changes based on what you need when you need it. My mentor for my time in the classroom is different from my mentor in leadership. Mentors are like the wizards behind the curtain, imposters perhaps in their own volition. They are there to share their learnings, their stories, their wisdom to strengthen your confidence, your opportunities, your self-awareness. Your mentor, ideally your boss, provides you a safe space to learn and grow, and break through any masks that you might be wearing.
First, Second, and Third Attempts in Learning
Like Shakespeare’s stages of life, your mentor should allow you to FAIL, to find your SAIL, and even stop chasing your TAIL. Each first, second, and third attempt in failing is a way to improve and grow your skills, experience, and mindset. I need to clarify, however, that these attempts in learning should not be repeated mistakes or repeat behavior in which you’re not demonstrating learning. These are different instances that allow for new opportunities to grow as a leader and prove your ability to own up in times of mistakes. Apologize. Reflect. Grow. But be given a second chance just as you would allow a second chance for someone else.
If you think you’re an imposter, why? If you project arrogance to cover up your inner imposter, why?
Realize and accept that we’re all in this together, ultimately in service of our students. We can help each other. Just ask, without your mask.
- Self image. (November, 2015)
- [Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp in “The Sound Of Music” singing Do Re Mi] (1965) Image retrieved from https://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/thesoundofmusic/do-re-mi.htm
- [Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp in “The Sound Of Music” singing I Have Confidence] (1965) Retrieved from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/446137906810556243/
Kristina is an executive director leading the digital learning efforts at one of the largest, public, urban school districts in the Bay Area. While most of what she learned about leadership comes from experience and professional learning opportunities, she encourages leaders to have a foundation in communications, psychology, and organizational leadership – the ultimate trifecta. You can follow her at @kristinamattis and find more information on www.kristinamattis.com .