Imposter Syndrome: Why Honesty and Humility Will Make you a Better Leader

Time and again I have worked with women in high-powered roles who are struggling with imposter syndrome. They are often crippled with self-doubt because they either believe that they don’t deserve the role they have or they somehow don’t know enough. Their lack of self-confidence prevents them from speaking up and gets in the way of them making a real impact in the world. Unfortunately, this is all too common.

Imposter syndrome and women in leadership

A recent KPMG study showed that 75% of female executives have experienced feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, or imposter syndrome in their careers. And 85% believe imposter syndrome is commonly experienced by women in corporate America.

In addition, 74% of executive women believe that their male counterparts do not experience feelings of self-doubt as much as female leaders do.

With so much self-inflicted pressure to perform, it’s no wonder that so many women at the top feel that they can’t admit when they don’t know something. It can feel like the imposter syndrome straw that breaks the camel’s back. But ironically, being honest when you don’t know something and leaning into that humility is what can actually free you up to do some of your best work.

Source: InnovateMR

Source: InnovateMR

No one I know is a better representative of humility in leadership than my friend and nonprofit leader Leah Shahum. I know Leah’s work best from her days at the San Francisco Bike Coalition where she led an engaged volunteer base, of which I was one, to contribute over 12,000 hours annually. Leah has just the style of leadership that makes you want to do good work. She’s engaged. She’s energetic. She’s honest about what she knows and what she doesn’t know.

These days Leah is the founder and director of the national nonprofit Vision Zero Network, and a research fellow at the German Marshall Fund. I sat down to talk to Leah about her style of leadership and what’s helped her get so much done in her prolific career.

The role of honesty in leadership

“I think knowing, recognizing and being okay with the fact that we all get it wrong sometimes, and not holding back your voice or your ownership of an issue or stance on an issue till you get it perfect is important,” says Shahum.

Without honesty, we can’t have trust. And trust is the grease behind the machine of getting things done with others. Yet while most of us know there’s nothing that destroys a team faster than a know-it-all leader, we see this play out all the time in the corporate world.

While Shahum admits to never having worked in a corporate environment, she says that finding other allies and building relationships where you are able to support each other in being more vocal, even if you’re not the pro in the room on something, is important. The goal should be to have a team whose goal is to nurture conversations versus just having a definitive answer.

“I feel like people appreciate it,” says Shahum. “I feel like something I often bring to a conversation is that humility to say, ‘This is really hard. I’m not sure we’re gonna get this today,’ or ‘This is not my area of expertise. I’m not sure I’m the best person here, but let me share this.’ And then you see other people open up more about something and it’s like, okay, we’re just having a conversation.”

“Expertise is nice, but being able to nurture conversation and ideas is a skill in and of itself, and a value that you can bring to people versus, ‘I’m an expert.’” —Leah Shahum

Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, speaks at the Vision Zero event at S.F. City Hall on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014.Michael Macor / The Chronicle

Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, speaks at the Vision Zero event at S.F. City Hall on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014.Michael Macor / The Chronicle

Is there a difference in the nonprofit versus the corporate world in how one brings up ideas and nurtures conversations? Are the perceived costs of honesty in leadership higher in the corporate world? As a professional, aren’t you getting paid to know? Shahum says being a leader isn’t about knowing everything.

“I’ve grown more comfortable saying, ‘I’m really not sure about this.’” —Leah Shahum

“It can feel very vulnerable to have humility in a professional setting where you’re getting paid to have an opinion—to be the expert,” says Shahum. “I want to be honest and say ‘I’m not sure, but let me put this idea out there’, and in a humble way. It’s honest. I sometimes say, ‘I don’t know this answer, but let’s start here.’ Not waiting until I felt 100% confident in something. I think this moves things further.”

Humility helps forge relationships and get more work done

Shahum’s ability to make people feel valued is a hallmark to her leadership, and it’s one of the reasons she manages to get so much done. She knows that being in charge isn’t about being a steamroller; it’s about listening even if you don’t agree, and not being afraid to take it in a different direction if that’s what’s needed. Unlike the megalomaniacal dumpster fire Elon Musk created with his takeover of Twitter, Shahum sees the importance of humility in leadership.

“Being honest about what I don’t know has helped me forge relationships that have allowed me to get more work done.” —Leah Shahum

Having the courage and humility to say ‘I don’t know’ while also being able to say what you’re focusing on and why it’s important is one of the hallmarks of great leadership, and it’s one of the keys to Shahum’s success.

“I bring my value by saying, ‘Here’s what I think we should be focusing on,’ while also saying, ‘I’ll be honest, I’m the new kid on the block.’” It’s this humility in leadership that allows others to open up and work with you on solving problems.

It took me years to get comfortable with saying I didn’t know something in a work environment. How about you?

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If you struggle to communicate your value, or just want to feel more confident when speaking in front of groups, check out our women’s group coaching cohort here.