Feeling like a fraud at work? Like you're failing and about to be found out? Imposter Syndrome affects over 70% of people at some point in their careers but together, we can empower ourselves to succeed. HPL's Global Education Director, Russel Ellicott, reflects on how Imposter Syndrome impacted his leadership as Head of one of the UK's top grammar schools, the indispensable support he had in overcoming it and offers tips for all leaders to help change their mindset.

Picture this: It's the start of the year and you're in a new role. A role you optimistically applied for and worked hard to get. A role that excited you with opportunity for growth and achievement abound. But as the weeks pass by, doubt creeps in. The weeks building up to the start of term are increasingly nerve-wracking—thoughts like "Am I really cut out for this?", "Do others think I'm useless?", "Am I letting down my team? The school? The entire universe?" start to consume you. 

The scourge of imposter syndrome has swallowed you. But you are not alone, in fact, the International Journal of Behavioural Science found that over 70% of people will feel like an imposter in their careers [1], but this is a battle you can win.

Imposter Syndrome is driven by feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. You start to feel insignificant, fearing that at any moment you will be caught out. You doubt your accomplishments, attributing them to luck instead of your own skills. Descision-making seems to take forever, full of procrastination and anxiety over negative consequences and then you communicate your ideas apologetically—expecting someone to shoot them down. Does this sound like you?

Your Imposter Syndrome may not produce all the above feelings, but the negative emotions and thinking will undeniably impact your performance as a leader. You definitely won’t be your ‘usual self’ and will find yourself working twice as hard to prove yourself, but becoming far less effective. So, what can we do? Are the imposters doomed forever?

When I started as Headteacher I continually played down my right to be in the job. I would say to others “I was in the right place at the right time, and they couldn’t find anyone else!”. I emphasised my failures as a senior leader and how this would be a huge learning curve. I assumed this was self-deprecation but, in reality, I was battling Imposter Syndrome. It wasn't until my amazing Chair of Governors coached me through it that I started to gain confidence, emotional intelligence, and impact as a leader. What did she do for me, and what can High Performance Learning do for you?

We started by re-emphasising that the Governors and the Trustees had complete trust in me. That I had gained the role on merit and that they were not nervous about the future, but excited about it. We wrote down, together, the positive traits that they had noticed in me, and we vowed to keep developing in these areas. Yes, there were things to learn, learning to celebrate my strengths was a welcome shift in thinking.

If I was able to go back and give myself tips on how to overcome Imposter Syndrome, what advice would I give myself? Well, now I'm equipped with the High Performance Learning Values, Attitudes and Attributes (VAAs), they can provide some guidance:

  • First, there's the Agile cluster. I was trusted to make decisions, to take risks sometimes and to lead as I thought best. I learned how to experiment with new ideas safe in the knowledge that I had the trustee's confidence. I would encourage myself to be more comfortable with risks, embrace uncertainty, celebrate being open-minded and enjoy the opportunity to be creative.

  • Next, the Hardworking cluster. I met with the Chair of Governors weekly to discuss actions that had been completed, to record and consider small wins and to chunk up the next areas of development. Our plans were fluid and continually adjusted but focussed on the same intended outcomes. For the first time, I kept a notebook with me. This was not just for my ‘to-do’ list, but to write notes on what felt best in different situations and to jot down the next steps with people. Focussing on deliberate practice, perseverance and resilience helped me to become a more effective leader.

  • Finally, we have the Empathetic cluster. Instead of worrying about the past or catastrophising about the future, I stayed in the present and acknowledged the reality. In his book, Atomic Habits, author James Clear emphasises the impact of “one percent better every day”, and the marginal gains approach certainly worked for me. When I reflect on how this links with the High Performance Learning philosophy, I can see that I was learning to harness my concern for society and developing my confidence that we were making decisions that would benefit the school community. 

    Perhaps the most important VAA in helping me overcome my Imposter Syndrome was being collaborative. Having the opportunity to work with and receive feedback from my Chair of Governors was indispensable—when I was lacking confidence in myself, being able to communicate these feelings to others and listen to their views in return was the key to shifting my mindset.

Unconsciously, my secret weapon in becoming more emotionally intelligent, more resilient, more open-minded and, ultimately, a better leader was the support I received. I couldn't have achieved this growth on my own, which is why I believe it's absolutely crucial for everyone to find their own support network to collaborate with.

In our HPL schools, we work with school leaders to provide an environment where students embody optimism, view challenges as opportunities for growth rather than obstacles, and focus on performance rather than ability. Our students are not only enterprising, but they also exude confidence and possess an unwavering resilience. While they may encounter setbacks along the way, and they are not immune to Imposter Syndrome, they are equipped with the tools to combat any challenges that come their way.

With practice, you can beat Imposter Syndrome, and the HPL philosophy can help. As leaders, it's worth considering how we can better implement the HPL philosophy in our adult lives—what do you think?

1: https://so06.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/521p

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