Imposter Syndrome

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in Bogota, the capital city of Columbia gasping for breath because the air is so thick there! The city is high up in the mountains; and because of this high altitude we were told the air is thicker. I was fascinated by the city. On the one hand there is graffiti on the walls almost everywhere, and the city has a reputation of a gangster vibe. At the same time, I was transfixed by the tall the trees, and the glorious views of the mountain ranges that seem like they will never end. The trees seemed to go on and on, extending all the way to the sky. At some point we went on a cable car to the top of the highest mountain and there the 360 degree views of the city were simply breath-taking.

There is a level of intentionality and commitment that female leaders must have, aligned to a strong understand of personal purpose; because the level of adversity and resistance you will meet can only be overcome with the resilience that comes from understanding who you are; and what you were created to be.

It was on this trip that I had decided to take a chance. Beyonce’s album LEMONADE had just come out; and it inspired me to write an article called ‘Lemonade is my story.’ The words flowed out of me with ease. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and how. Together with this story, I developed a pitch proposal to do a series of articles around infidelity in marriage and how black African females were dealing with the after-effects that sometimes lead to divorce. Then I had to figure out where to send this pitch. It was clear to me that the Huffington Post was the natural place. I loved the story of Arianna Huffington and the hundreds of writers and bloggers who had found a home with the online news agency. I too, felt strongly that my pitch should go to Ariana, even though I had identified different editors for features, relationships and black issues.

So I wrote to her personally, and copied the other editors. It was hardly 2 – 3 hours when I saw an email coming into my inbox from Arianna Huffington. I was shell-shocked. Could it be that she has responded? My hysteria started and soon escalated as I realised that she had not only written back; but loved my story and pitch. She instructed one of her senior editors to register me as a writer and implored me to register and upload the story I had already written. It was a beautiful article, she said.

But it was not long before my hysteria turned to sheer panic. Wait…what was I doing? Did I think I could produce regular interesting content for Huffington Post? What if people start writing to me and want me to respond to hundreds of comments? How can I be sure that I could handle this responsibility with all my other commitments? What if my articles get me famous…I don’t want to be famous!!! What if I suck at this?

The what-ifs were endless.

And you know what? I got myself so messed up with this negative self-talk that I did not register as one of their writers, neither did I ever publish anything on their platform - ever. Can you imagine it? I took this opportunity and literally threw it in the bin. Recently as I was thinking about working on my writing. I started my research again and discover that Huffington does not even take new writers anymore! There it was, an opportunity gone never to come back again!

What I had was a version of Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter syndrome, simply put, is the belief that we do not belong in the spaces where we are; and that sooner than later we will be exposed as frauds because we are not smart enough, experienced enough, pretty enough – we are just simply not good enough to be in a particular place or to hold a particular position. Imposter syndrome is informed by fear – a fear implanted in our minds by a life experience that made us believe that something is wrong with us, we are not worthy or we are not good enough.

Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Lean In speaks about the concept imposter syndrome that plagues women leaders in particular. The problem with imposter syndrome firstly is that you can lose your position unnecessarily, due to lack of effectiveness caused by fear. In many ways I think it would be better if this sense of insecurity caused you to lose your job; because your lack of effectiveness would not quite have such a devastating impact on others. The problem is that imposter syndrome also turns most of us into sitting ducks – a worse affliction than losing your job.

Let me explain…

When you are in a place you do not believe you belong; you are unable to harness the power given to you by that role even though you have it. There will be many things you cannot bring yourself to question because you don’t understand your position. There will be many things you cannot change because you believe you are illegitimate in your role as a change-maker. But at the same time, because you occupy the position, you make it impossible for more effective and confident people to come into the position, own it and utilise it to its maximum potential.

In the South African environment I have seen this time and again; where women or black Africans hold a certain position, but never gain the influence that position affords them because they never take ownership of their position, rather choosing to operate with fear of rocking the boat.

Imagine this scenario…you have just been appointed head of a department; which in part forces you to fight with other departmental heads in order to represent the interests of your department and be heard at exco level. If you do not think you belong in your role as a departmental head; you will be even more useless at exco level because you will be quiet most of the time; and when you do speak you will sound weak, incoherent and uncertain. You may then end up saying they do not take you seriously; and you might have a point. Except, it is difficult to take seriously a departmental head that sounds weak, incoherent and uncertain – and so, those who don’t take you seriously can hardly be blamed.

Please understand me, I am not saying women do not legitimately face real resistance in places of power. I am however saying that if you make it worse by not believing in your own self-worth and legitimacy as a leader; then you guarantee yourself to not be taken seriously. And not even the smartest tactics and strategies can get you to be taken seriously if you do not have confidence in your own self-worth.

I have never bought into the idea that women do not have a role in leadership in the home or workplace. In fact the more I study these spaces the more convinced I am of women’s unique leadership contribution as creators, innovators, problem solvers, accelerators, and nurtures. I am even more convinced that women’s leadership is urgently needed for three reasons i.e., service, justice, and inclusive wins.

So, if you still have doubts about your role and legitimacy as a female leader, begin to understand the times we live in, and how desperately the world needs the kind of transformation that women are naturally gifted at bringing. But believing in your role, capacity and need as a leader is not just a mental exercise of understanding the times and understanding the logical argument for female leadership. It is also a deeply personal process of understanding and believing that you were created for a purpose; understanding what that purpose is; and resolving to live out that purpose. There is a level of intentionality and commitment that female leaders must have, aligned to a strong understand of personal purpose; because the level of adversity and resistance you will meet can only be overcome with the resilience that comes from understanding who you are; and what you were created to be.

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