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For the cure for imposter syndrome, look no further than the blue Eurybia butterfly.
You just received the promotion you’ve been working towards. Or you’ve just started a company and hired your first set of employees. Or you’re writing online on a topic you know well but aren’t recognized for. With any of these scenarios come inherent doubts. You’re worried you aren’t ready for leadership. You feel you don’t deserve a position of responsibility. You are convinced you don’t belong. In our own heads, we know we don’t have everything figured out, so who are we to tell others what to do? These all-too-familiar beliefs are often described as imposter syndrome. And while you and I have spent most of our lives fighting it, perhaps the most potent remedy… is to accept it.
In college, I spent a week living in the tropical rainforest of Costa Rica. If you’ve ever been to Central America, it’s impossible not to notice just how diverse, beautiful, and useful every aspect of nature is. Growing up surrounded by concrete and asphalt in the Philly suburbs, I had never seen anything remotely close to it, except maybe on television or at the local zoo. But of all of my newfound curiosities, I was fascinated with one specific detail—the “eyes” on butterflies’ wings. During my time in the jungle, our guide would teach us the practical applications of almost everything around us, from the efficient path the bees take to pollinate flowers, to the methods of farming on a steep hillside. Throughout, I kept thinking about those butterflies. I knew it was an adaptation to fend off predators, but there was a deeper lesson to be learned: butterflies aren’t worried about being an imposter. In fact, they lean into it and use it to their advantage. Could humans do the same?
In every leadership position I’ve held, official or unofficial, I’ve battled with the thought that I don’t deserve it. When I was promoted to assistant manager at the Men’s Wearhouse at barely 20 years old, I kept asking why me? When I started an on-campus political awareness club, I kept asking myself if I even belonged at the front of the room. When I broke into the restaurant business, I didn’t know anything. I studied books to prepare, but I didn’t know anything about what it would be like on the ground. To this day, given all of my experience leading and mentoring people, I still ask, “who am I to be writing about leadership?” But every single time I question myself, I think about the butterflies in Costa Rica and move forward.
If you allow it, imposter syndrome can be detrimental to what you are trying to achieve. If you battle with it too much, you appear insecure. If you lack it, you risk becoming arrogant and overconfident. Neither are hallmarks of effective leadership. But striking the right balance is not only healthy, it is critical to your survival. If you feel the effects of imposter syndrome, you are exactly where you need to be. If you are worried you aren’t ready to take the lead on something, or if you are nervous about being caught unprepared, what it really means is that you are humble and willing to put in the work necessary to excel. On the motivational spectrum, imposter syndrome is just another form of hunger. It’s the carrot on the stick that keeps you moving in the right direction. It’s the heat you feel that initiates action, but not too hot to burn you. Your ability to accept imposter syndrome as a reality and channel it into a positive attribute will make you a better, more authentic leader.
With the “eyes” on its wings, the butterfly doesn’t morph into something else altogether, nor does it call attention to itself. The butterfly strikes the perfect balance of being a genuine butterfly while posing as an imposter. And while I would never suggest that you pose as an imposter, you should recognize the eyes on your wings, not with insecurity, but with confidence that you can use it to your advantage.
Like a blue Eurybia butterfly, when you lean into and accept your imposter syndrome, a funny thing happens: it suddenly starts working for you.
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