During a recent coaching session with an executive leader, I heard something that many leaders struggle with at one time or another in their careers. My client said to me, “I’m afraid that any day someone is going to discover that I don’t know what I’m doing.”
This is classic Imposter Syndrome at work. I hear this often, especially when a senior executive is leading the organization through a large scale transformation, or leading a team with a new strategy or creating a new company culture. Why do we fear that someone will discover our secret—that our confidence takes a hit when we are faced with the unknown?
It’s easy to see why these self-doubts creep up. We have no history to guide us in unknown territory. The responsibility for choosing a path rests solely on the leader’s shoulders. It can be a daunting challenge, but an exciting one as well. If we look at the Imposter Syndrome from a different perspective, then we would celebrate this opportunity rather than fear it.
In the face of the Imposter Syndrome, we coaches usually focus on reassurance and advise our clients to remember their strengths, and not to be so hard on themselves. But this time, when my client talked about the fear of not knowing, I coached him from a totally different perspective. I said, “It’s true, you don’t know… And you are right where you should be as a senior leader—in the unknown. That is what leaders do.” One of my own teachers, Bob Dunham, says it this way: “Leadership is always about facing the unknown. When you don’t know, you can still take action. You can explore, experiment and invent.”
Leading your employees and company through the unknown is the very definition of a leader. Think of even a concrete example of leadership, such as the role of a leader in a situation such as hiking in the wilderness. The leader is someone who is confident in his ability to face the unknown, and make good decisions about which direction to take or how to surmount a variety of obstacles. He isn’t afraid to blaze the trail. And, as a member of the group, you put your trust in the leader to take you on that journey. As an executive leader, if you’re never in the space of the unknown, then you’re probably not leading. You may be playing it safe; just managing the status quo.
It’s understandable why the Imposter Syndrome plagues so many talented leaders. At earlier levels of your career (supervisor and manager level), you actually are being paid to “know” what to do. You’re conditioned to have all of the answers. However, once you rise to the level of Vice President or C-level, you need different capabilities: the ability to build a team, to draw out answers from others, to collaborate on strategic solutions, and have confidence in your intuition to make smart decisions.
At the most senior levels of leadership, you don’t have all the answers because many of the questions have never been asked before.
Believing in your ability to face the unknown puts you right where you need to be. The unknown doesn’t have to be a scary place. In fact, it’s the space where innovation happens. Now, more than ever, we are faced with the unknown. Our current economic climate dictates new ways of deploying our resources, innovative solutions to problems and leaders who aren’t afraid to buck the status quo.
So the next time you experience the Imposter Syndrome, it’s confirmation that you’re in the right place: the space of a senior executive leader. You’re, in fact, on the edge of your own learning. Take a minute to celebrate that you’re right where you should be. Then do what great leaders do—innovate, problem-solve and lead your company to new heights.