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