Locality (the sector body who support and advocate for local community organisations of all types) recently invited me to be part of the line up for their ongoing 'lunch and learn' programme, which sees leaders of all types of community businesses, charities, social enterprise, etc come together to reflect on shared issues.
As a long standing member of this body (I remember when Steve Wyler was promoting it as part of a tour of conferences he was doing several decades ago after it was first formed!), it seemed a good opportunity to share some of my thinking around imposter syndrome - and in turn, have that challenged and expanded through the stories and experiences of leaders of different local communities of all types.
And as in previous instances where sector bodies have invited me to facilitate conversation around the topic of 'imposterism' with their respective constituencies, I wanted to share a summary of my notes so that the learning and insights people offered each other might have opportunity to be of benefit to others who weren't otherwise able to be part of it as it happened.
Having led similar conversations in other sectors, what struck me initially was the overlaps and similarity in how people shared that feeling like an imposter had impacted on them:
- it meant that they hadn't put themselves forward for new opportunities;
- it had stopped them from speaking out, or challenging others, in the belief that the other person(s) were more expert and qualified than they were;
- it undermined relationships people felt they were able to create and manage with their colleagues, as they felt that their team mates were seeing the person to be a 'fraud' in the same way that they saw themselves;
- some recognised that bouts of anxiety are quicker to surface whenever any crises in personal or professional circumstances arise, or we realise that "maybe we could have done that better, after all..."
However, there was an additional dimension to this conversation that I was keen to explore with participants - most of the published material on imposter syndrome seems to almost exclusively focussed on the individual experiencing the feelings of doubt. But if a leader (such as the people in this shared conversation) is so afflicted, what does this mean for their wider organisation?
This prompt drew out some observations and ideas which perhaps aren't that surprising when you start to think this through:
- because they doubted their own judgement, people's decision-making abilities were compromised which meant that things sometimes take longer to be agreed or enacted than they might otherwise have needed to. And in turn, this means greater costs are incurred from delays or missed opportunities;
- as leaders, people look to them to model behaviours and identify 'norms' in that organisation: if feelings of imposterism are limiting that leaders' ability to be decisive, pro-active, speak out, etc, then these behaviours (or rather, lack thereof) can quickly spread to the detriment of the organisation delivering on what it's supposed to be.
The conversation then moved back to revisit the ways in which people had initially shared how they are/have approached managing feelings of doubt to date, and in particular, seeing if there may be factors that are specific to leaders of community organisations that might mean they need a different set of tools and resources.
Two key themes seemed to emerge from this:
1) the inability to feel that as a leader, you are able to receive robust and honest feedback on your performance (i.e. no matter how you ask your colleagues, they'll always say they think you're a great boss, regardless of what they may actually think). And without such validations or encouragements to challenge them, leaders can quickly find themselves in a lonely vacuum where damaging self-perceptions can become quickly entrenched;
2) as leaders, we're looked to by our colleagues for support and encouragement to them. Because of the nature of some of the responsibilities we may hold in our leadership role, we can't easily (if ever) feel able to be fully and completely open and honest with our team about how we may be feeling in turn. We therefore need a space where we can meet with equals in honesty, safety, and openness, to be able to voice these feelings, as part of reconsidering them.
And it's this last point that affirmed why Locality's Lunch and Learn series is so important and needed; and also why I'm glad that I say "yes" to every invitation I receive to speak about my book - because I always use it as an opportunity not to try and flog more copies of it (although all sales are always gratefully received), but rather because it means that a body of people will gain an opportunity to have a shared conversation about something that's currently holding them back, or acting to the detriment of themselves and their wider organisations.
(and if you want to know about the book that prompted Locality to ask me to guest lead this session: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09V25N8G6)