Book extract: The Impostor Syndrome – The unplugged persona

The term "impostor syndrome" describes how many in business lack confidence and belief in themselves, unable to internalise their accomplishments and attributing their success to luck. In this extract, clinical psychological Harold Hillman explains how to overcome this syndrome and become an authentic leader

The unplugged persona

The beautiful thing about aspiration is that it typically comes with some aspect of a higher standard — wanting to be more, to give more, to have greater impact. For many of us, a big source of our pride and sense of contribution and self-worth stems from a history of being ‘mostly’ right about how life works. And being mostly right most of the time perpetuates the need for a higher bar — a higher standard that is typically self-imposed and brutal in its judgement of oneself if you dare to disappoint.

Life presents you with many dichotomies that fit nicely on horizontal continuums. The vast space that sits between perfection and degrees of imperfection is one of those dichotomies you can likely relate to. At the extremes on this particular continuum, absolute perfection and unalloyed imperfection are dangerous places to live indefinitely. They are best regarded as stakes in the ground that can give you some bearing on the wide space that serves as a bridge between the two extremes, where there is room to appreciate the benefits of both. The need for perfection turns your focus to high standards, quality and consistency — a rigour associated with delivering something or presenting yourself in a way that reflects extreme pride and ownership of the outcome. And being at peace with imperfection brings you a sense of comfort with vulnerability — that space in your head where seconds can seem like minutes, when you are waiting to see if people still think you are cool, still respect you, even though you didn’t get it right this time.

It is in the space between perfection and complete imperfection — on that bridge — where authenticity resides. And where exactly that point is between the two extremes is going to be different for any two people. It is a very personal space, full of self-appraisal, doubts, fears, concerns, hopes and dreams. And it’s in this space that you can find your core persona — the one that is sometimes referred to as the ‘unplugged’ persona.

An unplugged persona is just like that of the rock star analogy where there are no flash stage lights or voice synthesisers, and no chorus of background singers or flurry of dancers moving about at Mach speed with everything choreographed to the second. It’s just you in front of the microphone, while behind you a sole guitarist and maybe someone on the keyboard plays a quiet melody. It’s just you at the mike with no synthesisers to correct a pitchy note or cover for unforgotten words. But it really doesn’t matter, because people are drawn to how raspy and, in some cases, how earthy your voice is, and they are far more focused on your words than they are on the tune.

When you are unplugged, the thing that most people remember about their time with you is how you were, not what you did. They remember their experience with you. They remember that you were confident, yet relaxed. You were assertive, yet conciliatory to better ideas. Your presence was undeniable, yet you never overshadowed others’ contributions. You brought forward the best of many dichotomies in a way that positioned them as interdependent rather than mutually exclusive worlds. When you are unplugged, there are fewer either/ors and a whole lot less of the harsh judgement you impose on yourself for not being perfect. Paradoxically, the sweet spot of authenticity — of being unplugged — is to realise that comfort with imperfection often begets a greater result. These are not mutually exclusive extremes.

And then with the ding of an incoming email or the vibrating mobile phone alerting you to yet another text message, you are called back to the demands of the real world. Try being unplugged on your own time, buddy. The company, and particularly the boss and the team, are counting on perfection . . . on being right, not ‘mostly right’, every single time. A little bit of flash lighting won’t hurt you, the synthesiser might smooth out a couple of those rough edges, and the background chorus can cover up for glaring mistakes. And whatever you do, get it right this time. And just in case you weren’t aware, the world is watching.

Enter Impostor Syndrome, stage left. It kicks in with a fervour that is teeming with anxiety, apprehension, self-doubt and pessimism, all swirling around in your head and causing you to be completely self-absorbed. It is hard for you to focus your attention outward when all these crazy thoughts are prodding you toward the extreme and making you cringe at the thought of bringing forward anything short of perfection. You can’t be open, because that will expose potential flaws in your thinking. You can’t profess your lack of expertise in anything, because that will render your voice less significant with your peers, or even your own team. And you don’t take kindly to others probing you with questions when you are not quite sure how your answers will be judged or possibly used against you.

There are two things that are intriguing about Impostor Syndrome. The first is: the syndrome is largely self-imposed. Over time you find yourself listening more and more to an inner Critic, a voice that resides somewhere on that continuum between perfection and disaster. And that voice is typically far more critical, far tougher, than any boss might ever be with you. That inner Critic warns you that you are going to make a fool of yourself if you don’t get it right. The inner Critic’s booming voice warns you that, unless your solution is air-tight, others are going to soon discover you are a fraud.

The second thing that is intriguing about Impostor Syndrome is that it tends to strike those who have been asked to step up to take on a bigger role, perhaps where the decisions have far more influence and impact on the organisation and on overall results. But perhaps that’s not so intriguing after all. Success breeds success in a virtuous cycle that can, over time and with several promotions, turn vicious. This cycle can entrap senior executives in a bubble that reinforces the need to be right, to never be wrong, and to be omnipotent. To be all-knowing and all-powerful is a mighty tall task to pull off. But your CV tells us you are up for the challenge. There is absolutely no room for a vulnerable moment in the world of an impostor. No room whatsoever.

A huge number of people who wear the title of ‘leader’ have experienced Impostor Syndrome at points in their career, most often following a promotion or when newly assigned to a role. Often this is amplified if you are new to a company and in a role where no one internal was deemed suitable or qualified to take it on. Or it may be that you have been with the company for a while and are in the same role, but you are now on a new learning curve with a major deliverable and it suddenly feels like a new job. It may be that you didn’t ask for the role, but someone more senior has deemed you the best person to help the company work its way out of a situation. Or you just may be the only person around the table who reminds you of . . . you. Sometimes being the only one who looks or thinks differently, or simply is different from the others, increases the pressure to be perfect.

Like most ailments, treating the symptoms will bring only temporary relief, enough to get you over a hurdle or two, but you know from experience that the symptoms will return at the next big challenge, where once again you will have to put on the mask of perfection. Like most ailments, treating the root cause may take longer, but it breaks the cycle and leaves you confident that you are not going to be knocked back at the next major hurdle. In the case of Impostor Syndrome, the real cure comes about when you are able to concede that your own thinking — your own thought patterns — may be working against the positive impact you could be having as a leader. Your own thinking may be getting in the way of others seeing you as a truly authentic person.

As with any ailment, the symptoms are common enough to recognise. What makes the difference is the treatment, and that is where you come in. The cure comes from within rather than beyond you. There is no magic pill or injection. There is no brain transplant. In the great majority of cases, there is no need for a psychotherapist. The cure comes from within. And you most definitely are the one to make that happen. Unplugged.

© Copright. Reprinted with permission from Random House New Zealand. For more details: The Imposter Syndrome