Imposters Among Us… and What To Do With Them

Seems like I’ve talked to an awful lot of imposters lately.

Run of the mill people, important people, people who used to work for me, and people I’ve worked for. We laughed at “not getting found out” as our careers progressed up the ladder, feeling like we were faking our way through success. Classic imposter syndrome – successful from the outside looking in with a self-perception of barely-concealed incompetence from the inside looking out.

I’m not going to get all soft and shrink-ish on you, and some of you may have never felt like a poser, but I daresay there are some who know exactly what I’m talking about. The recent conversations caused me to look back and think about how many jobs I had where I was an MSU (Making Stuff Up) pretending to be an SME (Subject Matter Expert).

Note: in the Air Force, you have to have a TLA (Three Letter Acronym) for everything.

In my experience, the military trains us to be one thing (i.e., pilot) and then gives you any number of “additional duties” which most often have absolutely nothing to do with your training.

For instance, my first “additional duty” was to be the squadron’s Resources Augmentation Duty Officer. Even now I can’t tell you exactly what the job entailed (something about emergency preparedness, I think), but apparently if you could say the title, you could wear the title. No big deal, right? Right… until we had a big headquarters inspection, and my grade was going to be my boss’ boss’ boss’ grade, which increased the pucker factor significantly. A+, by the way.

And then I was the wing’s T-37/T-38 Installed Engine Run Program Manager. Another “no biggie” until – you guessed it – we had a big inspection, and I discovered during preparations that we had a solid D+ program. Scoring another A+ confirmed what I suspected: I was an imposter pretending to be an Engine Run SME, when I was just MSU.

Then there was the time I was put in charge of building and defending a 5-year, $11 billion plan that integrated resourcing for hundreds of operations, acquisition, and modernization programs for our command. I can guarantee nothing in pilot training prepared me for that nightmare, but I had some really talented people working for me, and by getting out of their way and letting them be successful at their individual jobs, the entire team was successful.

It never occurred to me that they might be imposters, too.

Or how about the “dog-and-pony show” tour I gave of my new overseas command after having been there less than two weeks? I gladly let others showcase their capabilities, because I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.

Or my first time in the White House Situation Room discussing policy recommendations for the National Security Council? Definitely not in my comfort zone.

You get the idea.

Since none of you reading this has ever felt like a poser in your successful career, let me let you in on a little secret: most of the people who work for you have – especially if your confidence in your own competence creates an environment where others don’t think they measure up.

So, here are some ways you, as leaders, can help the imposters on your team:

Let them know you recognize their part in the team’s success. Good leaders take the blame for failures and give credit to the team for successes. When you give them feedback, talk to them about their contribution to the success – their leadership, how they managed the organization, the way they re-focused resources on challenges, and the positive impact they had on the team by giving them credit.

Likewise, help them fail better. Not more… better. Teach them to dig into failures so that while they know they’re accountable, they understand they’re not the root of the problem. Imposters already feel like failure makes them, well… failures; there’s no need to pile on. They’ll learn more from understanding how things they control – and things they don’t control – came together to produce an undesirable result.

Don’t compare them with others. Especially in public. As in, “why can’t you be more like…” Imposters do that to themselves, and it’s not helpful when you confirm what their inner critic is whispering. The military is especially good (bad) at comparing individuals several times a year: for developmental education, for promotion, for more important jobs, etc. This creates a cohort of talented people with tons of leadership potential feeling like left-backs on the B-team. Not everyone can be a gold-medalist, but leaders can and do help others accomplish their personal best.

Remind them they’re still under development. We all are. We are works in progress until we die, and they will be, too. Setbacks – and we all have them – don’t prove they’re imposters any more than it proves we are. It’s not easy to help someone shore up weak spots in their foundation, but if you want to develop successful leaders in your organization, you have to put in the effort.

And it has to be intentional.

What do you think? Is it possible someone who works for you (or with you, or over you) feels like an imposter? How about letting them know they’re not alone and teaching them to take on new challenges with renewed confidence in their teams… and themselves.

It’s up to you, leaders.