The first time I spoke with Meena,* she was a few days away from starting her new job as a senior director in a large civil rights organization -- her first time in a senior leadership role. She was experiencing a full-blown bout of imposter syndrome. “I’m still in shock that I got this job,” she said. “I feel overwhelmed. There’s so much I don’t know. I’m not ready.” I asked her, “What would being ready look like?” As Meena described all the people she imagined would be perfectly ready for this role, a distinct pattern emerged. They were all variations on the same theme -- white, male, in their 50s or older, with years of experience in senior management roles.
No wonder she felt like an imposter. This was not and would never be her -- a 40-year-old Indian-American woman who’d spent her career working with on the front lines as a direct services attorney. The default image in her mind of what leadership at this level looked like was getting in the way of imagining the unique leadership she could create.
It wasn’t that Meena was insufficiently empowered or politically aware. Our environment shapes how we understand concepts like “leadership,” “expertise,” and “legitimacy.” Yes, the world is changing, but the faces we see in leadership positions are still largely white and male. These are the default stock images we’ve internalized. For women and people of color in leadership positions, it can be another layer of dis-identification from our own leadership roles.
How do we work with this?
First, we get curious about the narratives that are driving our thinking. In Meena’s case, the initial story that was paralyzing her was, “I’m not ready.” When she got curious about what readiness would look like, she saw that underlying her story were cultural images that had nothing to do with her actual level of readiness.
Getting out of the story of, “I’m not ready” enabled her to see that the requirements of the organization at this time -- for someone who had direct experience with the needs of low-income clients and wasn’t limited by conventional ways of doing things -- were exactly the qualities she had. Far from being “not ready,” she was uniquely qualified to have a positive impact in this role.
Second, we rewrite what leadership looks like by bringing our authentic selves into our leadership roles. As long as you’re trying to be something you’re not, the feeling of being an imposter won’t be far behind. This is the problem with “fake it till you make it.” It can get us through a meeting, a speech, a project. But it only exacerbates the nagging internal feeling that we should be something other than what and who we are. It also shores up the prevailing images of what leadership looks like, because “faking it” usually means emulating the stock image versions that are most familiar.
You have unique gifts to bring into your leadership role. But in order to contribute them, you first have to see them yourself. This requires letting go of notions of who you should be, and embracing who you are.
When Meena did this honest self-reflection, she saw that she was exceptionally good at identifying talent, higher-level strategy, building teams, and fostering relationships of trust with affected communities. For the aspects of the job that did not come as naturally for her -- the nuts and bolts of a new area of litigation, for example -- she found people who could mentor her and from whom she learned. This enabled her to focus on what she did best, and to empower others to contribute their own strengths.
Five years into her leadership role, Meena was selected by peer organizations to receive an advocacy award. In the remarks introducing her, the presenter described her as unlike anyone else in their field.
If you’re wondering whether being yourself can really be enough, it can. We don’t need more leaders striving to be what they’re not. We don’t need to further entrench the limited views of leadership we’ve all grown up with. We need your unique gifts, your unique experience, your unique perspective. We need you to expand what leadership can be.
And you already have everything you need.
(* Names and other identifying details have been changed.)