Given the importance of self-awareness in the context of leadership at all levels, I recently spent some time reflecting on exactly what it is that people in senior leadership roles think of themselves. If we held a leadership ‘mirror’ up to them, what would they see?
I was reminded of a leadership offsite event I ran for one of my clients’ Senior Leadership Team recently. My aim was to generate and facilitate a challenging, deep and reflective dialogue between participants – one in which they felt ‘safe’ in sharing their concerns, worries and dreams. To this end, we encouraged individuals to consider their fundamental career ‘drivers’, to share with the group the things that really motivate them (in the past and now) and to examine their journey to this point celebrating their success as a member of a Senior Leadership Team for a significant and successful technology business.
These were seriously successful, senior people, leading large teams and in charge of vast budgets. To their junior colleagues, they were powerful, influential, confident and, potentially, intimidating. Such senior people surely wouldn’t doubt their own status, would they?
I was wrong – and very happy to be so. A high proportion of the group mentioned feeling like imposters. I heard phrases like, ‘I’m sure I’ll get caught out eventually”, “I have no idea how I managed to get into such a senior position” and, “shhhh, don’t tell anyone that I have no idea what I am doing’. Whether or not all of them genuinely suffered from imposter syndrome, I found it both interesting and heartening hearing such senior people display the humility to admit and discuss their neurosis around being ‘found out’. If we know anything about emotional intelligence, it’s that admitting your fallibility is a great way to display empathy and build trust. Whilst self-deprecation is a higher risk strategy when directing teams and individuals under pressure, we know everyone has an inner dialogue – the voice that can undermine confidence. Even senior leaders! Yes!
We know that leaders aren’t perfect, of course. They’re human. Whilst some are gifted with natural skill and flair in leadership roles, others are elevated to their position without the behavioural impact required to succeed. They develop it in-role, to be coached on and to build on with experience and reflection. We hope.
It’s in this space, the leadership development zone, where embracing leadership fallibility and balancing it with the needs of the organisation is key. What kind of leaders does the organisation need? The leadership ‘aura’ – that innate authority and wisdom followers often expect from their ‘leaders’ – reinforces the myth that leaders have to have all the answers. Even when they don’t and can’t. Is this ‘aura’ a positive or negative force?
Whatever its impact, it’s vital to give leaders the support they need to manage their ‘imposter voice’ and to deliver a balance between projecting authenticity and undermining their own credibility. Ensuring leaders highlight and nurture what makes them real as well as projecting a focus on delivering results for their teams and the business seems a goal for all organisations.