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Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

As a school leader, I quite often had a little voice inside my head telling me, “It won’t be long now. They are going to realise that I’m not as good as I pretend to be and they are going to work it out that I am faking it. I don’t really have all of the answers. Sometimes I’m making it up as I go!”
That is classic Imposter Syndrome.

Many school leaders (and teachers too) feel like an imposter. Many of us put pressure on ourselves to perform because we fear that any mistakes will reveal that we aren’t good enough and don’t have all of the answers – and that it is only a matter of time before we are found out.

This is partly because our work with people is complex and challenging but also not a precise science. There are a lot of grey areas where there are a lot of options and a range of viewpoints. It is rarely black and white.

The other reason why imposter syndrome is common in educational leadership is self-doubt. Our work as teachers has trained us to be our own harshest critic. Our work in education is never ending. We are constantly looking for improvement and to ‘fix’ things. There is always more that can be done. More preparation that we could do. More research that we could undertake to find better approaches. More strategies that we could implement.

Imposter syndrome can be particularly common for young, or early career school leaders, especially where they are much younger (or less experienced) than the people they are responsible for leading. However, the difference between leaders who are experiencing imposter syndrome and who are delusional and think they are Superman and the best thing since sliced bread is accurate self-awareness.

At both ends of the spectrum, the leader crippled by self-doubt and the delusional leader who thinks they know everything, there is danger.

Research suggests that about 70% of adults experience imposter syndrome at some point in their life. Psychologists believe that people who struggle with imposter syndrome when they believe they are undeserving of their achievements. This is often due to a lack of confidence in our abilities. We see ourselves as a phony.

To fight imposter syndrome we need mental toughness.

If you know you have Perfectionistic traits, you are likely to also experience imposter syndrome. This is the person who feels pressure to be perfect in all they do. When perfectionists perceive that their performance is not as good as it could have been, their inner critic can be nasty and judgmental. They feel like a fraud because they feel they have let themselves and others down.

Instead of perfection, aim for excellence. Rather than judging your performance as less than perfect, acknowledge that you did the best that you could with the time, resources and information available at the time. Be realistic about your expectations of yourself and others.

In these challenging and uncertain times is vital that leaders are calm and keep issues in perspective. Being too reactive unsettles staff and adds to their uncertainty and anxiety.

My favourite definition of the difference between leadership and management is…

People need leadership, everything else needs to be managed.

Crucial questions for leaders to reflect on often:

  • Will this matter a year from now?
  • What is the most important thing I can be doing at this time?
  • Have I got the balance right between listening and speaking?
  • What sort of leader do I want to have the reputation for being?