First Time Leadership Challenges: Managing Imposter Syndrome
An imposter is someone who does not belong where they are. The central themes are belonging and acceptance. These are powerful leadership constructs because belonging and acceptance are what leaders are expected to foster in their teams.
Leaders must define each member’s role for a team to be effective. Leaders give structure and define purpose with specific expectations for performance. A positive performance review reaffirms a team member’s sense of belonging and signals acceptance from authority. Recognition for their accomplishments evangelizes the team member’s place and encourages acceptance from other team members.
First-time leaders go from having a strong sense of belonging and acceptance to being the one expected to give that to everyone else. Who gives it to the new leader?
Subordinates rarely reinforce their leader’s capabilities or recognize their achievements. For new leaders, impostor syndrome starts when they question how the team sees them. Do their followers accept them in this new role?
The next level of leadership probably is not focused on frequent affirmation and acknowledgment of the new leader. Impostor syndrome grows in this feedback vacuum. Does leadership trust the new leader, and are they satisfied with the new leader’s performance?
Impostor syndrome is a fear that others will realize the new leader is inept. It is less a fear of failure than a fear of being revealed. There is an aspect of public shaming for inadequacy. This deep archetype is built into every culture and touches on our most profound sense of self-worth.
Impostors have two sides. The first is a claim of being someone or capable of something. The second is deception for personal gain. Understanding both parts of an impostor is how leaders overcome impostor syndrome.
Impostors Are Intentional Deceivers
The central trait of an impostor is the lie with the intent to deceive and benefit from the deception. New leaders feel like they have made claims about their abilities by taking the job. This is a backward view of where accountability lies.
I am a senior leader, allegedly a competent leader. I promote an individual contributor to a leadership position. I assessed capability, and I cannot punt that to someone else. New leaders don’t have visibility into this part of their promotion.
If I put someone into a role and they fail, other leaders put most of that on me. I am a poor judge of talent. I don’t know how to set people up for success. I am an inadequate mentor who left the new leader out on their own. It’s on me to tell if an individual contributor is ready to lead and mentor them into the new role.
But the new leader asked to be promoted. True, but if a small child tells their parents, ‘I am ready for the big slide,’ it’s the parents’ responsibility to ensure they don’t seriously injure themselves.
I also must set clear expectations for the new leader. Defining the role is critical, and that’s my job, not theirs. However, many new leaders are left to set expectations on their own. Managing up is part of leadership, but it shouldn’t start on day 1. Again, I am accountable for knowing what needs to happen so the new leader can succeed.
If you hire someone without experience, would you let them push code straight to production? If they did and something catastrophic happened, who’s more at fault? New leaders have responsibilities to their team. First-time leaders can expect their next leadership level to have some responsibility too.
First-time leaders are often left without clear expectations and internalize that shortcoming instead of putting responsibility where it truly belongs. As a result, they overcompensate. Instead of setting realistic expectations, they try to do everything, which is impossible. First-time leaders will always fall short of the perfection standard.
Setting Expectations With Leadership
Step 1 in dealing with impostor syndrome is looking for clear expectations from the next-level leader. It is OK to ask for them, even though it sounds like asking for a clear definition of the role is admitting they don’t understand their role. New leaders are guaranteed to feel like an impostor if they pretend to understand the role when they don’t.
The next-level leader won’t always know how to define the role and set realistic expectations. In tech, few people are given structured leadership development and paired with an experienced mentor. It shouldn’t be a surprise to discover the next level of leadership is unprepared to support new leaders completely.
In the absence of expectations, new leaders must set their own. This gets done in a meeting with the next level leader to review a proposed expectations list. New leaders can detail their current abilities and the gaps that need to be addressed to be effective. The conversation should expose new skills and gaps. From there, a training plan must be built to fill the gaps.
This handles one cause of impostor syndrome and fills the expectations vacuum.
Setting Expectations With The Team
How does a new leader stay relevant to the team? Leaders produce a different type of value than team members. Not realizing that is a significant source of impostor syndrome. When a leader stops delivering code or models to production, they often feel irrelevant to the team. They feel unproductive.
Relevance and value are closely related. First-time leaders must understand the new value-creating activities. New leaders can learn more about their purpose and objectives through training and mentorship.
Step 2 is providing the team with clear expectations. New leaders focus on setting expectations for team member performance. How can a leader hold others accountable if they cannot be held accountable themselves?
Accountability is a source of authority. I can set expectations for myself with the team. I can tell people what they should look to me for. Where does my job begin and end? What value do I produce? Why have a leader in the first place?
The next level of leadership should be a part of this process, but they may not be ready to fill that role. Leaders create value with these activity categories:
Removing barriers to progress
Developing the team to be more effective
Translating the business’s goals into the metrics the team is accountable for
Creating a culture that supports high performance and continuous improvement
Building a team that delivers more value than a collection of individuals
Setting expectations happens when the new leader lists the activities they are capable of handling today. They detail their learning and growth plan. No one is built to handle every leadership activity from day 1. No leader is ever fully baked.
I don’t know that yet. I cannot do that yet. I haven’t mastered that yet. And here is my plan to improve so I can. The word ‘yet’ is powerful because it acknowledges a shortcoming that could have led to impostor syndrome. It normalizes imperfection and continuous improvement. My team cannot be honest with me about their strengths and weaknesses if I don’t create an environment where that is acceptable. New leaders accomplish that through their examples.
The antidote to impostor syndrome is transparency. It takes irrational confidence to admit shortcomings while believing in our ability to overcome them. I’ve said these words more times than I can count, “I don’t know how to do that, and it’s my responsibility, so I had better get on that.” I come back to the team with a plan to fill the gap and a timeline. I am accountable for it, and here’s my action plan to address it.
Engineers and data scientists accept that statement and process because that’s what they do too. We take ambiguity and turn it into solutions. We figure it out. Leadership is no different. The only impostors are people who refuse to admit their shortcomings. It is the intent to deceive for personal gains that make an impostor.