A few years ago, I was moderating a training conference with the senior leadership of a small, emerging company. During the meeting, I asked the CEO to share a moment that had transformed how he now leads. This individual was truly loved, admired, and respected by the members of his team because he was known for inspiring others with both his head and his heart. His response to the question shifted the atmosphere immediately, bringing tears to some people’s eyes.

After a successful prior 10 years at a company, he had lost the support of his team and had grown apart from his boss. He recalled walking the city streets until 4 AM, feeling bewildered and empty as he assessed leaving the company because he felt he no longer fit the culture. Tears filled his eyes as he shared the story, recounting the feelings and stress it put on his family. He paused and shared, “That emotion is still with me.” It was a moment of truth and openness. Everyone recognized the authenticity of this remarkable leader because he had removed his mask.

Many of us have had these moments and empirically understand this feeling. It has been estimated that 70% of people suffer from the “Imposter Syndrome” at some point in their lives, that internal belief that one day we will be discovered as a “fraud”. When we don’t feel genuinely confident, we fall into bad behaviors. These fraudulent feelings occur at all levels and can happen to anyone, but the most confident leaders are humble and have made peace with the imposter.

The late Franciscan thinker Brennan Manning said that if you are serious about leadership authenticity, you must take off your mask. “While the impostor draws his identity from past achievements and the adulation of others, the true self claims identity in its belovedness,” he wrote in his book, “Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging.” Leaders who are defined by personal accolades typically miss the mark. The truly transformational leaders are relational, transparent, and connect on a deeper level. Manning continues, “In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others.”

Are you courageous enough to truly share from the heart with your customers? Are you vulnerable and strong enough to take off the mask and genuinely connect with your team?

Sales leaders that are uncomfortable showing weakness, admitting mistakes, or owning up to failure create barriers in their sales relationships. Most people expect (and even require) extreme authenticity and realness from peers, bosses, and any organization selling a product or service. We expect “the real”, not counterfeits or fake intimacy.  The best buying relationships risk difficult discussions, embrace tension, and take off their mask.

None of us likes perfect people. In fact, those who feel flawless typically are not great leaders. As the adage goes, “Never trust someone without a limp.” We want to experience others’ humanity and understand their story. Said another way, “perfection in imperfection” is what influences others. Are you comfortable being known? 

My leadership and coaching philosophy was born in a home that struggled with my father’s substance abuse. That was coupled with a slight stutter growing up and occasional social anxiety. This background makes me more sensitive to those trapped by their past and helps me empathize with others. I am not controlled by my story, but it always informs how I see the world.

I have noticed five behaviors that the healthiest leaders exhibit.

  • They are comfortable listening and do not need the spotlight.
  • Outside validation is unnecessary because their achievements internally fuel them.
  • They initiate courageous conversations and do not become defensive when others oppose them.
  • They are comfortable with ambiguity and are not threatened by opposing views. 
  • They are curious about what they do not understand and are open to changing their mind. 

Imposter syndrome is rooted in a belief that you are not enough and as a result, you suffer from feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and insecurity. It creates an insatiable need for external affirmation and causes stress, anxiety, and fear.  The following are three mindsets to you overcome the imposter in your own life:

  1. REFRAME:  Remind yourself that perfectionism is not a positive virtue, it is fear of failure.  Failure is essential to growth, building confidence, and resilience.
  2. REBOUND: Everyone feels inadequate and fearful at times.  Fear is normal and not the problem.  The problem is not walking through fear or rebounding from a failure. 
  3. REMIND: A little bit of imposter syndrome keeps you humble, curious and empathetic to others. Remind yourself that a little imposter is actually an advantage.

Are you falling into bad habits or is the imposter taking you away from bigger personal accomplishments? What’s your process (or personal framework) for tapping into your very best on a consistent basis, and who is your trusted consigliere?

Editor’s note: This column was adapted from Dan’s latest book, “Look Closer: Ideas on Reexamining and Eliminating Personal, Relational and Organizational Blind Spots.”

Hi there 👋
Want the inside scoop on all things CPG?

Get the latest CPG and retail insights, trends, and business best practices sent directly to your inbox, every week.