Overcoming the Imposter Syndrome

“I’m afraid they’ll find out that I’m faking it.” Every summer as I observe another group of international school leaders work through an Immunity to Change protocol, I am struck by how many of them express this same fear. Anecdotal observation affirms that a significant number of talented and successful education experts express self-doubt. They report that they have refrained from taking a much desired critical career step or from attempting to actualize a dream because it will expose them. They think everyone will know that they are phonies, “faking it” or incompetent. Most striking to me about this comment is that it comes from numerous successful school leaders. In fact, without a proven track record, they could not be in the course. Hearing this comment from so many colleagues has prompted me to connect with them and to tell them that while their fear has no basis in reality, I admire their humility as well as their courage to now admit this. I also want to tell them about two insights that have helped me move past this same obstacle.

About ten years ago, the board of directors of my school gave me an opportunity to work with an executive coach, and as part of our work together the coach suggested a 360-degree assessment. I was terrified; I knew that if I agreed to this, I would no longer be able to fool anyone. I was certain that the combined data from the people with whom he would speak would unmask me. Nevertheless, I submitted to vulnerability, and the result was both enlightening and liberating. My coach interviewed my head of school, board members, colleagues, teachers who reported to me, personal friends and my wife, then reviewed his findings with me. 

With data in hand, I quickly understood that I had not fooled anyone and all these people indeed saw my weaknesses. But what I hadn’t considered was that they also saw strengths in skill and character that I had denied. It seemed that I had taken up so much of my own bandwidth holding onto my hidden fear of being exposed that I didn’t have the capacity to recognize that I have strengths that contributed to my success to that point. Yet the assessment was real, and I really had to accept it. While I still have inadequacies and challenges that I have not yet overcome, at the same time, I also have skills that I can use in performing my job as an educational leader. 

I am sure that there are many outstanding educators who don’t need coaching or some other personal development opportunity to appreciate their own strengths, but I know now that among colleagues and peers, my feelings were not unique. With this in mind, I want to say to colleagues who share similar doubts, if for a moment you cannot fully trust in yourself, trust that the people around you are as smart and perceptive as you think they are. You have not fooled them: they see your inadequacies; trust that their perceptions of your strengths are equally valid.

I learned another thing from my coach that I hope will be helpful to other self-doubters and introverts. We have a professional obligation to step out of our comfort zones. After we reviewed the results of my Myers-Briggs personality assessment and agreed that I have strong tendencies towards introversion, my coach explained the facts of professional life to me. I learned that I have the right to be shy and I may always be one of those people for whom it is painful to engage in small talk. However, I cannot be that person professionally. Ironically, on this issue I always thought that I had fooled no one, and that people understood that my introversion was behind my reticence to open conversations. According to my coach, though, while I was standing alone being my shy self, parents and board members saw me as being standoffish and judgmental. My silence to them was a sign that I did not think much of them. To remedy this and properly do my job as a school leader, I had to get outside my comfort zone. 

Since then, I have followed his advice, and it has made a difference in my professional relationships. I have found that by pushing myself to initiate small talk and thus building even superficial relationships, the familiarity I have with more parents and colleagues has created an opening for what are at times difficult conversations. The initial delivery of the message that I am open to others allows them to be open to me and establishes the mutual trust we need to work together. My wife and my children and my closest friends allow me the personal space to be with them and in quiet, but at work there’s no space for that; introversion may actually be a trait of leaders, but it is not a leadership quality or behavior.

Introversion and self-doubt may be connected to humility, which we view as a positive character trait, and I think that most people are wary of others who lack humility. So I would not suggest that good leaders must eliminate their feelings of self-doubt or that they must seek help to become full extroverts. However, emerging leaders who wish to learn the art of successful leadership need to know how to stretch beyond their personal comfort zones to engage in the behaviors appropriate for the challenges before them.

By Rabbi Alan Berkowitz, Principal of Magen David Yeshivah, Brooklyn