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The Big Bad Wolf of Leadership: Imposter Syndrome

Want to know something? I have a secret. Something I've been marinating on for a while, silently collecting anecdotal research. Something that I don't know if we talk about much in education, or in education leadership--but we should. There's a big bad wolf that rears its ugly head at times. Imposter syndrome.

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I can remember the exact time and place where I first experienced this. I was sitting in room 308 at Burney Elementary School with my teaching partner-in-crime. We had been tasked by our assistant principal to lead a book study on independent reading conferences with our colleagues. As we were getting ready to begin the conversation, I glanced at the faces around the room.

Tricia: She had taught for 20 years and was a seasoned pro. Michael: He had taught for over 15 and his students just loved him. Stephanie: She was a 12 year veteran with a teaching award under her belt. And then the panic set in--who was I to be leading conversation with these amazing educators? How long would it take for them to figure out I was fake--a phony? That I had no business leading a professional conversation? My inner panic attack soon became an outer dilemma as the visual evidence made its grand appearance. Crescent moon-shaped rings of sweat emerged under my arms. Beads plummeted down my freckled face and my ears turned a orangish-red shade that matched my hair.

I had a bad case of imposter syndrome.

So what is imposter syndrome?

In the 1970's, psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance first described these feelings and coined the term imposter phenomenon from evidence in their clinical research, thinking that it applied mostly to women. Their research in 1978 found that many women who had high levels of motivation and had a penchant for achievement also had high levels of self-doubt. They discovered that there was something beyond everyday anxiety haunting many successful women.

Also called imposter syndrome, it's defined as having feelings of being an imposter despite numerous achievements or successes. It happens by connecting success to external forces (such as luck) instead of internal forces (such as hard work). This goes beyond the normal self-doubt and waltzes into the land of "they are going to find out I'm a fraud." 

This is imposter syndrome.

Who does it impact?

I have been witness to a lot of imposter syndrome in education with my fellow teachers, especially in teacher leadership. I've talked to teachers who are questioning why they were asked to lead a meeting, speak at a conference, or talk to a local politician. Teachers don't always see themselves as experts. From my qualitative research in advocacy, this has emerged as one thing that may be preventing educators from impacting education policy. But it extends beyond our profession ...

A 2007 study shows that up to 70 percent of the population will experience this at one point in their lives. A whopping 70 percent! And it occurs across different cultures, different genders, different ages and occupations. It does not discriminate, and it doesn't just impact those people who are always striving to be high achieving. This big bad wolf can haunt us all.

I decided to do a little digging in the zainy and unofficial research lab at the Mount Holyoke College Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership. I couldn't help but think that the number seemed high. What would happen if I launched this question out to my teacher colleagues? Would at least 70 percent of the respondents say that they had experienced imposter syndrome at least once in their professional lives?

I threw out the poll to the good folks of the "interwebs" and had 26 bites on the line within a day. And of the 26 respondents (drumroll, please), 25 said that they had experienced it at least once in their life. That's 96.2 percent of teacher leaders in my little poll! And these are recognized teachers, National Board Certified Teachers, state teachers of the year, teachers who have worked in education policy at the state and federal level, teacher educators, and veteran, highly effective classroom teachers. Teachers who I might assume don't see the same big bad wolf that I do. But we all have this little leadership secret in common.

Current research has shown that the grip of imposter syndrome expands beyond women, with minority groups seeming to be especially vulnerable. Differing in any way from your colleagues can boost your odds. Peeling back the research a bit more, certain minority groups seem to be more susceptible than others. A study at the University of Texas in 2013 found that Asian-Americans were more likely than other minorities to experience these feelings.

And even famous people get a case of the Imposter Syndrome blues! Maya Angelou stated that "I have written 11 books, but each time I think 'Uh oh...they're going to find me out!'" 

Don Cheadle said that "All I can see is everything I'm doing wrong that is a sham and a fraud."

And Academy Award winning actress Kate Winslet has described waking up before a movie shoot thinking "I can't do this. I'm a fraud."

On a personal note, my confession is that it impacts me all the time. When I am talking to state representatives. When I'm working with teachers. When I'm sitting at a meeting with other professors. When I am working with non-profits on white papers or think tanks, or even as I type this blog post right this very moment. There are so many times when this big bad wolf whispers in my ear, planting the seeds of doubt in my mind. "What gives me the right to be sitting here? To be in this discussion?"

So now that the secret is out, how can we battle this big, bad ole' wolf?

I've been asking my colleagues and scouring the research. And I've found some answers. More tomorrow with advice for tackling this little leadership dilemma.

Photo courtesy of Paul Sableman

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The opinions expressed in An Edugeek’s Guide to K-12 Practice and Policy are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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