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Don’t fall into the Impostor Syndrome Trap


Don’t fall into the Impostor Syndrome Trap

Scott Peltin

I remember how weird it felt when I first became a fire captain, after almost 12 years of being a front line firefighter. I didn’t completely understand the root of these feelings but I quickly learned that as a captain the funny sarcastic remark I would make to another firefighter as their peer was now taken in a much different way. Although I didn’t feel I had changed, in the minds of my crew I was indeed different - I was their leader. When I became a battalion chief, I noticed that these feelings returned but this time at a much deeper level. As I explored these feelings, I recognized that what I was feeling was a lack of confidence, a feeling of being an actor (a firefighter dressed in a chief’s cloak), a feeling of inadequacy.

At that time, having been an avid student of a Performance Mindset, I was not only surprised by these feelings but I was also unnerved. Knowing there had to be an answer, I started researching my situation and came upon some work by two psychologists, Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes where they described what I was feeling perfectly. They termed my experience Impostor Phenomenon (also commonly now called Impostor Syndrome) and they were studying professional women who became leaders. I thought immediately that this phenomenon was probably not unique to only women. And sure enough, since then several researchers have proven this to be true.

I remember when I first heard Dr. John Sarno say that after 25 years of treating a multitude of injuries and illnesses, he could conclude that 100% of human beings have some psychosomatic illness - I was shocked. But now, after 10 years of working with thousands of top executives, having seen my battalion chief scenario play out again and again, I have come to believe that 100% of all business professionals who enter into new roles, become new leaders, or move to new companies experience some amount of Impostor Syndrome. It is so common that I believe it should be addressed in all leadership programs, all business schools, and discussed in all promotional processes.

There are many reasons these feelings occur (some that may require therapy to discover), but the solution we have found to almost always work is to follow these steps.

.01 Create a clear vision of who you want to be in this new role. As you know from all of our writings, it is well-researched that it is nearly impossible to outperform your own self-image. Since your new role is new, there is no way your brain could have a solid self-image of you in it. Therefore, it's important to take the time to ask yourself several questions. Who do I want to be in this role? How do I want others to feel about me in this role? How do I want to lead? Writing this down in a paragraph or two and reading it daily during your first 6 months can make a real difference in preventing your brain from sabotaging you.

.02 Make a list of all of the strengths you have developed from your previous roles. Becoming conscious of your strength helps you with the next step and helps you realize that, even though you may not have all the answers, you do have the strength to be successful in this role.

.03 Diligently reframe your self-talk. Even with a well-formed To Be Vision, the brain is still built to protect you. Self-doubt is one of the ways the brain tries to protect itself. Quickly becoming aware of any inner dialogue that doesn’t serve you and reframing it to be in alignment with your To Be Vision and strengths is critical.

.04 Make a list of all of your accomplishments you achieved in your last several roles. This may include major transformations you led or were instrumental to, a doctrine you developed, or a much simpler yet just as important accomplishment. The key is that these previous successes prove to your brain that it is not only capable of great things, but that the probability of great things coming in the future is very likely.

Being a great leader takes a High Performance Mindset and this takes work. But having experienced Impostor Syndrome myself, and coached many great leaders to overcome their own, I can promise you that you can beat it.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts.