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Leadership Imposter Syndrome: Helping Student Leaders See Themselves For Who They Really Are

New Professionals and Graduate Students
March 7, 2023 Jon McCullough

“I’m not a leader, but…”

As a graduate advisor for a student organization on campus, I’ve helped oversee a fair share of elections for executive board positions and I can always count on hearing that phrase at least once each election cycle.

For some reason students don’t always see themselves for the campus leaders they are and what they’ve accomplished. Maybe it’s because for many students just starting college, the dominant perspective on leadership is still associated with authority and holding positions of power (Sanders, 2014). Perhaps students believe that the “typical” qualities and expectations of leadership favor those who identify as extroverts and so they just don’t relate (Farrell, 2017). Or it could be that the title of leader has been turned into something meant to be achieved over time, and that calling yourself one now gives you an air of superiority or arrogance (TEDx Talks, 2010). 

Whatever the case may be, it’s our job as staff to help our students break out of this leadership imposter syndrome. If we let this mentality fester within our organizations, we end up with a far less diverse group of individuals and will keep tapping the same students over and over again to fulfill responsibilities. Both outcomes inhibit growth for students and the organizations they belong to. It is not always easy, but helping students navigate imposter syndrome as a leader can be done both proactively and when we see it come up with individual students.

One way to proactively help students see themselves as more of a leader is by including leadership assessment tools into organizational training and programming. Common tools such as CliftonStrengths, DISC, Enneagram Type Indicator, and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) all help students identify skills, strengths, and characteristics in their personality and leadership that can otherwise be hard to pinpoint or be aware of. Each tool doesn’t come without its own pros and cons, but these tools all help focus on the individualization of leadership; that there is always more than one way to lead. Students can see how their results show up in their day-to-day, how they can use results to succeed in their work, and how each person brings their own unique style of leadership to the table. While some of these assessments can also be pricey at face value, utilizing personal or office connections with folks on campus who may be able to provide discounted access to assessments is a great way to overcome financial obstacles to bringing assessment tools to your organization.

Another way to proactively break down leadership imposter syndrome is to incorporate leadership development theory into programming as well. Many major leadership theories identify leadership as a process instead of a position, something that can be difficult to see for those struggling to recognize themselves as a leader. While most students probably don’t want to sit through a 20 minute lecture about the Social Change Model of Leadership, finding or creating activities that get at core principles of a leadership theory (something I’ve heard termed “hiding the vegetables”) can be an effective way to engage students with a better mindset around leadership.

Lastly, it’s important for us to call out leadership imposter syndrome when we see it one-on-one with students. Not all students are going to experience it the same way; some might be trying to push themselves to do extra work because they feel inadequate while others might be worried about making a single mistake and feeling “found out”. Being intentional about building trust and rapport with students and creating a healthy feedback loop is key to knowing how leadership imposter syndrome might show up with your students. Provide effective support consistently, but also try to anticipate when more might be needed too. Students transitioning into new roles may be more susceptible to experiencing leadership imposter syndrome, and so you might need to provide extra support as they begin their time in an organization. Imposter syndrome can also have more negative consequences around mental health for students with marginalized identities (Cokley et al., 2017), and so be cognizant of what barriers or triggers might exist within your organization or amongst its members that could cause it to show up and work to address them before it becomes an issue.

At the end of the day leadership is never perfect and it never will be. It’s important to help our students feel validated in their own strengths, skills, and experiences while acknowledging any doubt they experience. Through our support, encouragement, and intervention, hopefully we can continue to change mindsets and empower students to be the campus changemakers we know they can be.

References:

Cokley, K., Smith, L., Bernard, D., Hurst, A., Jackson, S., Stone, S., ... & Roberts, D. (2017). Impostor feelings as a moderator and mediator of the relationship between perceived discrimination and mental health among racial/ethnic minority college students. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64(2), 141.

Farrell, M. (2017). Leadership reflections: Extrovert and introvert leaders. Journal of Library Administration, 57(4), 436-443.

Sanders, C. G. (2014). Why the positional leadership perspective hinders the ability of organizations to deal with complex and dynamic situations. International Journal of Leadership Studies, 8(2), 136-150.

TEDx Talks. (2010, October 7). TEDxToronto -  Drew Dudley “Leading with Lollipops” [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVCBrkrFrBE

Author:Jon McCullough (He/Him) currently serves as the Graduate Leadership Coordinator for the Office of Residence Life at Bowling Green State University and is a second-year student within BGSU’s College Student Personnel master’s program. Previously, he served as the Jewish Student Life Coordinator for Hillel at Ohio University.