“Imposter Syndrome” is a Great Sign

Philosopher Oliver Burkeman writes: “Remember: the reason you can’t hear other people’s inner monologues of self-doubt isn’t that they don’t have them. It’s that you only have access to your own mind.” The experience of feeling overwhelmed or insufficient in the early days of a new role is a relatable one. “Imposter syndrome” is a phrase often heard from new school leaders, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a reflection of how far you’ve come and the learning that lies on the horizon.

New and transitioning leaders are constantly building schema − either encountering new things for the first time or expanding their understanding of previously known concepts. Building schema, by nature, challenges the feelings of mastery that give people professional confidence; it’s hard to feel like an expert when you’re in a state of continuous learning. While it might feel deflating in the moment, there is no surer sign of growth in your new role than occasionally feeling like an imposter. It’s an essential part of the professional learning cycle: when you build and refine schema, develop insight on it, then iterate your behavior, imposter syndrome dissipates and confidence re-emerges. The coaching space helps people acknowledge what they are already doing well and supports them in effectively reframing new challenges as learning opportunities.

Essential coaching questions:

  • What are you learning in your new role? How can that insight inform your approach over the next month of school?
  • Based on your previous answer, what is one concrete change you’d like to try? Experiment with it for one to two weeks and see what you learn.

Leadership is a Process of Becoming

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear describes how to enact behavioral change. While most people expend their energy on trying to change the behavior itself, Clear explains why habits are so difficult to break when you only focus on surface-level actions. That’s because behavior is intimately connected to something deeper: your identity. How you behave is a reflection of who you believe you are. If you want to create sustainable change in behavior, you must start by shifting how you see yourself.

Leadership growth relies on more than engaging with challenges and attending to responsibilities − i.e., the “doing” of leadership. Having fierce conversations or delegating tasks will always feel arduous if you identify as a people-pleaser or as someone who prefers to control small details. The key to growth lies in expanding your sense of self so that those behaviors become a natural function of who you are − i.e., the “being” of leadership. Who do you want to be? Then, what kinds of things does that person do?

In that liminal space of becoming − where your previous professional identity starts to become undone but your new identity has yet to take hold − it’s common to experience doubt, uncertainty, and fear. While the fears expressed in coaching conversations appear to be straightforward – for example, fear of rocking the boat, upsetting colleagues and families, or doing your job poorly − I believe that fear in transition is about something more elemental: the fear that stems from not recognizing who you are when you do things differently. The coaching space makes room for the complexity of human development, supporting the being and doing of change as you become the next version of yourself.

Essential coaching questions:

  • Who are you becoming in your new role?
  • How is fear showing up in your transition? What is there to appreciate about that fear?

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

The human mind is capable of a host of invaluable functions like reasoning, social connectivity, and learning, but it can also be a source of misdirection that creates unseen pitfalls for leaders. People produce countless plausible thoughts, but they’re not always accurate. Because the way we think is inseparable from our past lived experiences, leaders − like all people − are subject to their own biases and tend to interpret situations in ways that reinforce their existing worldview. Two of the most common culprits that lead to erroneous thinking are cognitive distortions and the internal, dissonant voice known as the “saboteur.”

Cognitive distortions are thoughts that lead people to inaccurately perceive reality. One type of distortion is “mind reading” − or being sure of other people’s thoughts and motivations without first talking to them. Mind reading can cause leaders to perpetuate their own assumptions while selectively tuning out counter evidence. Coaching challenges the inclination to read minds by having people consider their locus of control, or what they actually have control over. Steering leaders toward their locus of control helps them focus on where they can effectively channel their energy − namely their preparation, execution, and interpretation of events − and helps them let go of what’s outside their control, including how other people think, feel, and behave.

The “saboteur” is a moniker given to the critical voice that participates in your inner monologue. While everyone’s saboteur says different things, its favorite phrase tends to be “you’re not enough” or “you’re too much.” Saboteurs love stability, purporting to act in the name of your safety, so they’re particularly active during leadership transitions when so much is in flux. Most people aren’t aware when their saboteur is present, so recognizing it in a coaching conversation can help place it to the side and curtail its impact on your development. Coaching helps leaders navigate cognitive traps so you can identify what’s really true and show up as your best self.

Essential coaching questions:

  • Think of a challenge you’re currently facing. What’s within your control here? What do you want to let go of?
  • Identify a common phrase of your saboteur. How does that keep you safe? How is that undermining your growth?

The Peter Principle is a Trend, Not a Guarantee

The Peter Principle is a management concept that states, rather depressingly, that people get promoted to the level of their incompetence. In other words, the principle says that people keep getting promoted until they encounter a job that they can’t do. But its prevalence doesn’t make it a guarantee, and it can be overcome with the right support.

In considering why the Peter Principle happens in the first place, it’s instructive to look at the research of leadership scholar Ron Heifetz, who highlights the different kinds of challenges that leaders face. Technical challenges involve problems that can be solved with content expertise, while adaptive challenges − which don’t have a single “right” answer − instead require leaders to acclimate, adjust, and transform in order to thrive. Successful leadership transitions are dependent on both.

While technical leadership can be achieved by having strong hiring practices, accessing external resources, and engaging in regular professional development, responding effectively to adaptive challenges, which call forth interpersonal and intrapersonal acumen, arguably makes the biggest difference in beating the Peter Principle. Being able to communicate adeptly with other people (e.g., demonstrating political savvy) and within yourself (e.g., managing negative self-talk) are often what make or break leadership tenures.

A plethora of resources exist to support leaders with technical tasks, but addressing adaptive challenges is a process unique to each leader. While coaching doesn’t lessen the responsibilities of a new role, it does provide leaders a dedicated time to examine and resolve adaptive demands.

Essential coaching questions:

  • How are technical and adaptive challenges showing up in your role?
  • Think of one adaptive challenge that you’d like to focus on in the next month. What’s the stretch for you here? Identify one strategy or action you will try in the next week to move yourself forward.

The Landscape Looks Different as Soon as You Take Action

Human beings are natural storytellers. We create them, exchange them, and gravitate toward them. But of all the stories we tell, none are more important than the stories we tell ourselves. Limiting stories, old stories, critical stories − these stories may not be true to begin with, but they become so through internal repetition. Often people are in the midst of familiar stories they tell themselves. I can’t…they won’t…who am I to…? The more these stories are rehearsed, the more they become cemented, unwittingly accepted as true. But there’s a simple and effective way to challenge stories: action.

Get the stories − and with them, the fears, insecurities, and assumptions that author the message − out of your head and put them to the test. As soon as you take action, you disrupt the stories in your head. Action provides new evidence to draw from, interjects different narratives, and can shift the landscape of what’s possible. One small step can be the beginning of a new story, even when you’re not sure of the ending. “If you don’t start walking,” says Mark Burnett, producer of hit shows like The Voice and Shark Tank, “you won’t get anywhere. Start walking, even if you don’t know where the path will lead.”

Action is a critical part of the coaching experience. By getting thoughts out of your head, acting intentionally, and reflecting on the course of events, you not only transform the story − you transform yourself.

Essential coaching questions:

  • What is one old story you tell yourself? How does that old story limit you?
  • What new story do you want for yourself? What is one baby step you can take in the next 72 hours toward writing that story? Notice what happens when you do it.

Whether you’ve been promoted within your own school or you’re leading in a new setting, professional transitions bring with them the opportunity to positively impact people and institutions in numerous ways. Unique school cultures, novel responsibilities, and new relationships provide countless ways to learn and grow. Personalized, actionable, and transformative, coaching is a powerful tool to stimulate leadership development and strengthen school communities.

  • Leadership

Zakaria Sherbiny is the founder and principal coach with First Rodeo Coaching. He spent his career prior to coaching in independent schools, teaching at the Beauvoir School in Washington DC, and serving on the leadership teams at both St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Jackson, MS, and the McDonogh School in Baltimore, MD. He holds a BA in sociology from the University of Virginia, an MEd in educational leadership from Columbia University, and an MEd in human development and psychology from Harvard. Zakaria is a graduate of the Klingenstein Center and was selected as a coaching fellow with Coaching for Everyone to train with the Co-Active Training Institute.

First Rodeo Coaching helps you become the person you want to be, in life and at work. Every one of us has a default future that occurs if we do nothing different − a continuation of habits, mindsets, and systems that loop on repeat. Coaching is about taking charge of your life and writing the story that you want for yourself. What will you look back on this moment and say you did?