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To overcome your ‘imposter syndrome’ you need to find your self-doubt triggers.

Stop feeling like a leadership fake

Growing demands on school leaders have led to a lack of confidence among many, fuelling the onset of ‘impostor syndrome’ within school communities.

The room erupts in explosive applause. Conference delegates give you warm smiles and thumbs up as you step off the podium. Others move towards you to shake your hand.

And as you arrive back at your table a highly respected education official says to you: “That was outstanding”. Brushing off the compliment you reply, “I am lucky I got through that”.

Instead of basking in the well-deserved praise, you become anxious as you take a hatchet to your presentation. 

You are convinced your talk was boring, lacking in substance, and potentially exposing you as a fraud or an impostor to a room full of experts.  

Sound familiar?

Welcome to the secret club of high achieving school leaders who suffer from ‘impostor syndrome’ – a condition that makes it exceptionally difficult for them to believe in their capabilities and to internalise their own accomplishments.

Members of this not-so-exclusive club experience regular bouts of negative self-talk, reiterating to themselves they have somehow managed to blunder their way through their entire careers through exceptional luck and by being in the right place at the right time.

They will often have intense feelings of self-doubt, regular drop-offs in self-confidence and sometimes encounter a sense of fraudulence. They will shy away from praise, find it difficult to accept compliments, and consider their success a result of external factors rather than their own professional expertise and hard work.

Although impostor syndrome can affect any school leader, experts believe it is more prevalent in overachievers and those who move up the ranks quickly, those who have recently moved into formal school leadership roles, and in women.

It can strike at any time, and often when you are battling a barrage of challenges all at once.

These challenges could include addressing several unpleasant parent complaints, a failure of the school’s internet systems, storm damage to several classrooms and the need for urgent repairs, or finalising preparations for the school board meeting. They are sufficient to make you question whether you are cut out for the job, and things unravel from there.

To be clear, an episode of self-doubt every so often does not constitute impostor syndrome.

School leaders with this often career-crippling ailment are more likely to have had disruptive thoughts over weeks, months or even years, which in turn can lead to perfectionism, burnout and even depression.

Many experts believe the increasing demands on school leaders have resulted in what might be described as a ‘confidence desert’, which has fuelled the onset of impostor syndrome within school communities.  

Tackling impostor syndrome starts with acknowledging the regular occurrence of negative self-talk and taking steps to observe it but not engage with it. Actively pushing back with positive self-talk can be a useful technique to deploy against the internal voice that tells you that you are hopeless.

Think also about trying to determine your own impostor syndrome triggers by paying attention to the things, ideas, situations or even people who inadvertently flick your self-doubt switch.

Consider also mentoring or coaching a peer or close colleague. Sharing your own successes and ideas with junior colleagues helps to reinforce your own accomplishments and achievements, as does keeping a journal or diary of your key achievements and accomplishments.

And if you are moving into a new school leadership role, surround yourself with supporters – friends, colleagues, family and other associates – who can and will bolster your self-confidence. You can even consider sharing any feelings of inadequacy to allow your supporters to help you to put things into perspective.

Most school leaders experience moments of self-doubt at some point in their careers, so you are hardly alone.

What is important is that you make sure the very doubt that can hold you back does not control your actions. 

Your goal should not be to never feel like an impostor.

Rather, as a school leader, accept that you will have an impostor moment or two but refuse to yield to an impostor life.

Professor Gary Martin is chief executive office at the Australian Institute of Management WA

Comments

Fantastic article, Gary, very enlightening.

Sydney
Great article, Gary.

Sydney
Love your work, Gary. Top articles and big fan. Keep it up.

Singapore
Awesome article, very well written.

Melbourne
Great article, Gary.

This really speaks volumes, Gary. Surrounding yourself with supporters is key to a fruitful and meaningful life for you and those around you. Thank you for sharing.

Sydney
It can be a tough journey when you're battling those voices and it is lonely at the top. Totally valid to feel that discomfort. Getting help and support is vital for anyone who feels like they are out of their comfort zone. Don't let that critic get to you when you're doing amazing work. Great points here, Gary.

Sydney
Very interesting and useful article. Thank you.

USA
Very interesting, well written and relevant to many.

Sydney
A fantastic article, well written, very interesting insights.

Sawtell
We may all feel like an impostor until we achieve something new or extra. Once we do achieve, we then go from confident to a belief we can do whatever we felt we couldn’t. Once you reach a new level, it’s hard to recede mentally and we continue to grow and prosper as we continue to overcome self doubt. Great article.

What a great article! Really spot on Gary!

Texas
Gary, this was an excellent read. First, acknowledging those negative thoughts is prime, then mentoring those around you and sharing experiences helps. Surrounding oneself with people who help get you better internally is really great, as it helps eliminate this feeling. Love this article.

Perth
Another insightful article, Gary.

Really well written and insightful.

A very interesting article Gary, highlighting the importance of establishing a professional coaching network in schools.

Excellent article Gary. The last line summarises it perfectly. Never lead an impostor life.

Perth
This just proves that even highly intelligent people suffer the same plight as the rest of us.

Thanks for highlighting education leadership.. It is an area that is so under represented but so critical. Great read!

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