Lisa Raggio | What is imposter syndrome?

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Do you ever feel that you have fooled colleagues and have given the impression that you are more capable than you really are? Or that your achievements are mainly about good luck, or are a result of other people’s help? Do you find it hard to understand or accept how someone like you could be in the leadership position you are in? If so, you are in good company and may have encountered what is known as “Imposter Syndrome.” 

An estimated 70% of people experience imposter feelings at some point in their lives, according to a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science. It affects women, men, business owners, leaders, students, military service members, executives and many more.   

In general, imposter syndrome is defined as doubting yourself, not thinking you are “good enough” and feeling like a fraud. While not gender-bound, two psychologists developed the concept in a 1978 study, which focused on high-achieving women. They posited that “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”  

I myself ebb and flow in this phenomenon, illustrated by my own reluctance to “take a seat at the table.” I had the honor of co-founding a coalition with the mayor of Glendale to bring together a wide range of community stakeholders to create substantive change for veterans in the region. The coalition grew to more than 100 representatives and I was responsible for the administration of the meetings and ensuring all stakeholders were included and felt they had opportunities to engage.  

We met monthly in a large conference room at city hall. The mayor ran the meetings sitting at the head of the table, I would sit to his right, and the patriotism chair to his left. At the end of his mayoral term, he retired, but the city wanted to maintain the coalition because of its success in creating housing, employment and service opportunities for veterans, and I was asked to oversee the coalition.  

The first meeting without the mayor, the patriotism chair and I arrived early. I set my materials on the table where I had for the last year. As I pulled out my chair to sit down, the patriotism chair looked at the seat at the head of the table and said, “You need to sit at the head of the table.” I declined and explained that I wanted to promote a feeling of egalitarianism to the members. He listened and said again, “You need to sit at the head of the table.” 

Perhaps because of his stellar reputation, high regard and service (beloved retired assistant fire chief, veteran and community leader), I paused and was flooded with my inner voice asking, “What do I do now?” My body didn’t want to move, but as his focus persisted, I slowly inched my pile of paperwork, stood up and sat down at the head of the table. It felt uncomfortable. I felt like I stood out.  

As members filled the room, I wondered if some would think, “Who do you think you are sitting at the head of the table?” Then I took a deep breath, looked at the agenda, looked at my ally and I began and ran the meeting. And I did that every month for another three years.     

Fast forward to coaching a group of emerging leaders and the subject of how uncomfortable it sometimes feels to “stand out” and not wanting to be perceived as “different” or “better than.” I shared this same story with them but emphasized an unspoken truth — I was never totally comfortable sitting at the head of the table most of those years. But I did it anyway. Mostly because down deep, I felt I had the knowledge and competency to lead the coalition. But also because a small but growing part of me thought it meant something, bigger than my own lack of confidence or fear of failing, to see a woman sitting at the head of the table and leading the meetings.  

How do we manage imposter syndrome? It starts with a desire to pursue a vision of ourselves greater than our discomfort and a philosophy we ask new clients to adopt at the beginning of their coaching journey — progress over perfection. And… trusting our allies. Ultimately, our ability to maximize our potential means getting out of our own way and taking ownership of our success. 

Lisa Raggio is co-owner, with her brother Paul, of One True North INC. Leadership and Business Coaching Solutions, www.onetruenorthcoach.com. 

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