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Are You an Authentic Leader or an Imposter? Peeling off the Veneer

August 30, 2010
Updated August 1, 2014

I remember back in July 1998 being in the first of two five-week residencies in gorgeous Victoria, British Columbia. Being from the East Coast of Canada, admittedly possessing spectacular scenery in its own right, the West coast of my country is indeed inspiring.I was 43 at the time, and had been working in leadership and change management for several years. I entered the Master’s leadership program at Royal Roads University because I believed that I needed to deepen my understanding of the leadership field.I had worked for many years as an economist and manager in labor market analysis, with two economics degrees. But after five years of doing applied work in leadership and change management and reading like a fiend I felt like an imposter. So back to school while helping raise four kids.

I still vividly recall one of the seminars during my first residency, during which one of our faculty talked about the imposter syndrome. His comment smacked me between the eyes. I hadn’t realized to that point that was the underlying issue that was bothering me. Sure, 10 years previously I had entered management as a neophyte manager, only to fall on my face enough times; but I learned–and how. I was catapulted from a subject matter expert who had done plenty of client relationship management and partnering to the dude in charge of a team of economists and support staff. Now came the hard stuff.

Have you, or anyone you know, been catapulted into a managerial position, or worse an executive position without any solid supervisory experience? Feel a little stressed?

The rising tide of we Baby Boomers who are increasingly heading for the exits will create a monumental headache for those leading organizations as corporate memory evaporates and as millions of person-years (ah, a bureaucratic term I love) is gone forever. Yeah, yeah, Gens X and Y can’t wait for us to disappear for them to take control. I would never argue that the two succeeding generations to the Baby Boom do not have a lot to offer organizations. Their time has come. However, I also don’t subscribe to the notion that a then-young Gen Xer said to me at work several years ago: that for every three Baby Boomers who retire only one Gen X will be needed for replacement. If that’s not arrogance and naiveté, then I’m Pee-Wee Herman in disguise.

Young People In the haste to rid organizations of a generation that has admittedly become a pain in the ass because of its decades-long imposed culture (a few summers ago I watched two dudes from the former Grateful Dead perform at the Ottawa Bluesfest), please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater (sorry for the well-beaten metaphor).

When I talk about authentic leadership, I’m not referring to the individual who is appointed to an executive position, only then to start barking out orders. It’s essential to understand that management is an appointment; leadership is earned through followership. You can rearrange the deck chairs as often as you like, lay-off people, promote people, etc. But NO ONE will follow you unless they see you as their leader. Another way of expressing this is that you can manage through compliance, or lead through commitment. Which would you prefer?

People in managerial positions sometimes confuse confidence with integrity. I’ve seen enough cases of those in managerial positions who believe that because they exude confidence (which may actually be insecurity) that staff should follow them. Wrong! When your staff see that your words are consistently aligned with your daily actions, then they will begin to trust you and follow you. This is where integrity enters the picture–and where you as a leader will move to a higher level of being present among your followers.

It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.

– Mark Twain

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