Stephen Harrison-Mirfield


Diploma in Organisational Leadership







By Stephen Harrison-Mirfield

Imposter syndrome: let it drive you, not control you

When thinking about a subject for my first blog I was inspired by a conversation with a friend of mine who I met on the Post Graduate Diploma in Organisational Leadership at the University of Oxford.

This person is someone I look up to a great deal, he’s a real high flyer working for one of the world’s largest payment companies and he is a thoroughly decent person. We went out for dinner one evening and on our way back to our accommodation we got talking about the notion of Imposter Syndrome, how one can be doing an amazing job, have praise heaped on you and yet you still feel you’re a fraud, that you’ve just been lucky or the worst of them all is that you fear someone is going to catch you out. The funny thing was that both of us have suffered from it for years and it has only been recently that we have come to terms with it. We both agreed that it wasn’t until we were able to recognise it as a concept and square off in our own minds what it means to us that we were able to overpower it.

As a subject it was first highlighted in the late 1970’s and has been much written about since. There are many theories around the phenomenon but put simply despite external validation, we lack the internal acknowledgement of our achievements.

Is it about lack of confidence?

Some people might argue that those that suffer from Imposter Syndrome do so because they lack confidence. That might be true for some people, but definitely not for everyone. People such as Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), Arianna Huffington (Huffington Post), Tom Hanks (Actor) and John Steinbeck (Author) are all examples of people who have acknowledged that they have felt like imposters at various times during their careers. None of these are people we would turn around and associate with lack of confidence or lack of capability and yet they are still fighting their inner demons in terms of internalising that capability. It is probably fair to say there are a whole host of other high-profile business, sport and entertainment people out there that suffer the same, but they probably fear admitting it, believing it shows weakness, but does it really or does it show them as human?

Imposter syndrome emanates from the human tendency to want to be successful, and debilitates us with a constant inner monologue questioning whether we deserve the success we achieve. This might manifest itself in us feeling that recognition of success is not deserved, or we have a tendency to accredit others with the success that we have created. Some of us will ask ourselves is the glory reflected from others or was I just lucky and in the right place at the right time? Take a look at how many times you have been ‘lucky’, you might just see that you are lucky most of the time and that it is in fact not luck but a reflection of your capability.

What do you do about it?

There are various articles that talk about overcoming Imposter Syndrome and if you are interested and want to learn more you can easily find a lot through an internet search. As I mentioned above the first step to addressing how Imposter Syndrome affects you is to acknowledge that it does affect you. In doing this you are taking the first step in creating an internal acknowledgement framework that will allow you to take credit for your achievements. This is critical because as much as people tell you that you are doing a great job, if you don’t believe it yourself you will never be able to step out of others shadows. But one thing I would ask is do we need to fully overcome it? Let’s take me as an example, one of the things that I would say has driven me on over the years has been that self-doubt that has always meant I want to do better. If you think you’re the finished article, the perfect leader then how do you actually develop yourself further? Perhaps some people might see it as humility, but for me the Imposter Syndrome is a driver, it is part of what makes me who I am. I now harness the Imposter Syndrome to challenge myself and drive me on to new areas, but at the same time I have learnt to reflect on my successes and accept the credit that I have been given. However, that said, it is about enjoying the credit you have been given by others and not basking in one’s own self credited success. As my mother has always said ‘…self-praise is no recommendation…’.

How do you help people who feel they have Imposter Syndrome?

One thing that is apparent is many of us don’t actually realise we have imposter syndrome, we don’t even know of the concept and so how are we supposed to know how it might affect us? I remember being in the first module of the Post Graduate Diploma and our Professor mentioning the concept to us all. For me it was an epiphany, after all these years of wondering why I felt anxious and sometimes depressed, in the face of success, I suddenly had a name for it and a framework to address it. What was even more astounding was that it was apparent that 95% of the people around me, all high-flying executives from across the world, had similar feelings. 

The key to starting to help someone is for them to understand what Imposter Syndrome is and grasp that they are the ones that are doubting themselves and for them to move forward they need to acknowledge that. As a leader there are a few things you can do to help:

  • Provide a safe space – by this I mean provide psychological safety, if people feel they can speak freely and openly, without risk of being made to look small or feel unworthy then they will contribute more. Providing a space where everyone’s opinion is heard and valued allows your team to start to recognise self-worth.
  • Encourage reflection – Ask your team to do pre and post mortems on projects, ask them to look at what might go wrong and mitigate for them before the project starts and then get them to look at what has been achieved and what could have been done better at the end.  I personally find writing reflective articles like this a really helpful tool as it makes me see what I have and haven’t done right and work on making myself better.
  • Provide feedback, good and bad – If you constantly tell someone they are doing a good job they will question whether you are just saying that to make them feel better. Conversely if you are only picking up on faults of your team they will always ignore their achievements. The goal has got to be to provide balanced feedback and do it in a timely manner. Don’t tell someone they did something great or something wrong 6 months after it happened, tell them at the time. Allow them to correlate their actions with your feedback, this makes the endorsement so much more powerful and builds trust and confidence.
  • Show that you are human, that you suffer(ed) too – Demonstrate your leadership through the admission that you previously or still do suffer from Imposter Syndrome. This is something that has been powerful people I speak to. Show that senior people can experience it and overcome it, this honesty provides you with an authenticity and connection to the people you are speaking to. The feeling of being an imposter is amplified when you see people around you who seemingly never make mistakes and some who boast about how perfect they are. As leaders we have an obligation to lead by example, you can only do this if you are able to admit to your mistakes and show humility. Recognising your mistakes and working on ensuring they don’t happen again is not a weakness, it is a significant strength. It shows the people around you that you are human and it helps them to understand that as they strive for success things are not always going to be perfect.

For me Imposter Syndrome has been a double edge sword, sometimes it has got the better of me and led to low periods and feelings of not being worthy. However, more frequently than this it has driven me to prove to others what I am capable of and their recognition of this has led to my career advancement and a good amount of praise over the years. I currently have an excellent executive coach and we have discussed this matter at length. Between my coach and the friend I mentioned at the start of the article they have helped me to realise that the best way to approach Imposter Syndrome is to embrace and harness the way it drives me on. Allowing me to feed my personal development to prove I am capable, but not to be a slave to it. These days I regularly take a short period to pause, reflect and celebrate what I have achieved.

This approach works for me and I hope it will work for others as well, but in order to take the first step you have to be able to work out if and acknowledge that the concept applies to you. Once you can do this you can develop an internal framework that gives you the ability to recognise and embrace your achievements, which will be in part be fed by external praise and in part by an inner appreciation of what you have done.

In writing this article I had the guidance and wisdom and Paul Ryan of PayPal, a good friend and a fellow Rugby League aficionado – thanks Paul you are truly an inspirational friend and leader.

Back to top of article

Share this post:

follow us in feedly