Dive deep inside of yourself and see what’s in there. The chaos that I experienced was a direct result of living a life driven by what was going on in my outside world. I lived an unconscious life based on what I could see, hear, taste, and touch. I spent time trying to avoid the most valuable sense — feeling.
As a part of our series about how very accomplished leaders were able to succeed despite experiencing Imposter Syndrome, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Kitko. Mike Kitko is an executive coach and speaker. In October he published his first book, “The Imposter In Charge,” about his rise and fall in his life and career from the imposter syndrome. He found external success in the world through powerful titles, incomes, and material possessions, and ultimately fell into depression, alcoholism, and the near collapse of his family before he began a journey of internal happiness. Mike now coaches executive leaders to feel as powerful on the inside as they appear to those they lead.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
During my childhood, my time in the Marine Corps, and in my rise and fall in corporate America, I never felt adequate. I always exceeded expectations and found success, but I never felt good enough. I lived a life of inadequacy and insecurity, just waiting for it all to fall apart — and eventually, it did. I lost my career and almost lost my life and family. After losing my second executive position in 20 months, I figured out that I had nothing figured out, and I began a journey of self-discovery and self-mastery.
I rebuilt my belief system, health, relationship with myself, relationship with my family, and decided to never do anything I dislike ever again. The only thing I’ve ever enjoyed in leadership roles was growing high-performing people and high-performing teams. Now I get to do that full-time, and I find adequacy and security inside of myself — not in my titles, income, or possessions.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I was the Plant Manager of an operating plant in Portland, Oregon, for Stanley Black & Decker. I took over an underperforming plant and built a team capable of outperforming just about every other facility and team in the business. We executed an amazing turnaround, and our financial and operational performance was best-in-class. I would put that team up against any other team on the planet.
Once my team and plant were in place and performing, I felt useless. My inadequacy and insecurity kicked in and I felt like it was just a matter of time before I was pulled into a conference room and fired for being excess baggage, because my team did all the work. I just hired, trained, and led them. I didn’t value myself or my talents, so it felt like I was unnecessary and a burden to the business. I started looking for another job so I could leave before I was fired. I was looking to escape because I wasn’t self-aware enough to know that I was talented and a valuable resource in the corporation.
I did escape and my family began fracturing from years of personal and relational neglect. We relocated to Missouri for a corporate move, and I was fired twice over the next few years. You never outrun the imposter syndrome until you look inside to find what’s real, uncovering stories that had been made up and healing them as you go.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I bring the intensity and courage of my Marine Corps training, my business acumen from years in corporate leadership positions, and new life skills and awareness to leaders and teams. I often find myself coaching the leaders on how to create a sound, strategic objective aligned with their talents and visions, hold them accountable for their physical, mental, and emotional health, and help them connect more deeply with their spouses in the same session. My coaching business is not just about excelling as a leader but empowering the leader within each individual to ensure that we can create a life well lived.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Definitely my wife, Angie. I spent years thinking that as the alpha male in the house that I was the courage, strength, and power in our family. Not true. I am powerful in my words, actions, and in the fire and wisdom I bring to the boardroom and my coaching, but I am not all of that at home. My wife has battled and overcome an abusive childhood, rape, neglect, addiction, and the lack of leadership in her youth. She left home at 13 and was legally emancipated at 15.
Angie and I spent years battling inside of an abusive relationship because I was a 50’s-style husband with strong egoic role identity and gender posturing. Angie has taken leadership over our family and demonstrated that she is the leader of the family, and she is the fuel for my passion and success.
Without recognizing that she is my power, courage, and strength, I definitely wouldn’t have built a coaching business as quickly as I have.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the experience of Imposter Syndrome. How would you define Imposter Syndrome? What do people with Imposter Syndrome feel?
My experience with the imposter syndrome is absolute self-rejection. When I was in deep in the chaos of the imposter syndrome, I felt like I held no value or worth in the world, and that I was just disposable. I was handed accolade after accolade, and reward after reward throughout my entire life — starting from 4 years old on. I felt none of it. I just felt like I was always in the right place at the right time, they were recognizing me out of pity and sympathy, or that I just had an unfair advantage. No matter how hard I worked or how much I knew or performed or achieved, I always felt on the cusp of complete and absolute failure.
My life was exhausting because I felt like everyone was valuable except for me. Looking back at it, it seems impossible, but I felt I was just taking up space and had nothing to offer anyone. I was just a nuisance.
I spent my entire life trying to not be found out. I hid who I was, my fears, and my weaknesses. I played roles and pretended that I had it all figured out. I shape-shifted to be who I thought I needed to be in order to be accepted and valued. I wore masks, and I eventually came close to sticking a gun in my mouth. At that point I knew I was missing something.
What are the downsides of Imposter Syndrome? How can it limit people?
People with the imposter syndrome feel they can’t be themselves and succeed. They don’t feel good enough. One of the pieces of advice we’re taught — “fake it until you make it” — is the imposter syndrome spoken out loud. The expression says human beings need to be perfect and have it all figured out all the time. Imposters become paralyzed if someone finds out they are not perfect or there’s something they don’t know or have.
I remember sitting in conference rooms making almost $200,000 per year hoping to not be exposed as a fraud. Being exposed meant not knowing the answer to a question. It’s like we need to be all things all the time to be relevant. Of course, that’s impossible, so we spend all of our time hiding in the shadows, and, in my case, people kept promoting me and praising me. It was complete chaos.
The imposter syndrome simply takes away your ability to feel like you matter, and that you can just show up as yourself, as you are in that moment. You need to be something you’re not to be valuable.
How can the experience of Imposter Syndrome impact how one treats others?
I was abusive at home. I intimidated my teams. My intensity, tone, and aggressive nature increased to protect myself when someone challenged me. It was all self-protection, because I was afraid that I’d be found out to be imperfect or a fraud. I hurt people and pushed people away to maintain the false façade. I lied to those who mattered to me because I felt that the truth made me less than I already felt, and I already felt disposable.
Different people react in different ways. More introverted people might react by remaining more quiet. I have a current client who goes into a shell even more when his inadequacy is triggered. I would become more outspoken and aggressive to try to prove myself or to try to regain control. You focus on deflecting attention away from what you don’t know or the parts of yourself that feel broken and incomplete.
We would love to hear your story about your experience with Imposter Syndrome. Would you be able to share that with us?
In my book “The Imposter In Charge,” I shared a story from my childhood. I went to a baseball tryout when I was very young. I remember riding home in the car with my dad feeling like I absolutely tanked. I felt like I’d be lucky to get picked at all.
When I received the call I was the first overall pick in the draft. Not only had I not tanked, but I had excelled.
This type of performance, self-assessment, and results showed up over and over in my life, and it was so confusing. I just always compared what I didn’t do well to what others did well. I compared my weaknesses to their strengths, and I overlooked their weaknesses. I couldn’t see their imperfections, but mine were my entire focus.
Did you ever shake the feeling off? If yes, what have you done to mitigate it or eliminate it?
I did shake it off, after I lost my career and income, came close to taking my own life, and came close to losing my family. I had to do a complete reset. My physical, mental, and emotional states were all in complete chaos. I had neglected my own needs for decades. I began a massive search for a new perspective because I knew there were some disconnects in how I processed life.
My childhood was traumatic with abandonment, neglect, and molestation, so I dove into those headfirst and began to recognize why I felt disposable. My beliefs began to shift to healthier ones as I found out deeper and healthier truths about spirituality and being human. I set out to heal every disconnected aspect of my life and being, and I found that the journey never ends. Inadequacy and insecurity still surface, but I have a better understanding of how to relate and manage them instead of trying to hide them away. I have learned to love and appreciate exactly who I am, and that fuels a desire and willingness to continue to grow and evolve. This self-love and self-appreciation has created a deeper sense of love and appreciation for everyone in my life.
In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone who is experiencing Imposter Syndrome can take to move forward despite feeling like an “Imposter”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Dive deep inside of yourself and see what’s in there.
The chaos that I experienced was a direct result of living a life driven by what was going on in my outside world. I lived an unconscious life based on what I could see, hear, taste, and touch. I spent time trying to avoid the most valuable sense — feeling. I tried to avoid physical, mental, and emotional pain in my life, and this caused even more fear, alcoholism, abuse, neglect, self-rejection, and crushing pain. When you finally realize all of the pain and suffering that is present inside, you can finally begin to heal the painful traumas showing up in your daily life.
We live in a culture that values sedation, avoidance, and escape from our internal suffering. Facing the suffering and pain inside of you will help you resolve it, and you’ll no longer fear having those conditions triggered. What you feel heals. I ran from my pain for so long that it shaped my world. You can reshape your world at any time by facing your internal torment.
The first time I dove into my emotional scars and wounds, and faced my childhood abuse, I cried like a baby. I kept feeling the pain of my abuse and cried for so long I became numb. This emotional work released and healed so much pain that I actually felt lighter. This was the first time, and I’ve done similar work daily from that day forward.
We all have pain and suffering trapped inside. Facing it helps you find the freedom your mind has convinced you that you can find in sedation, avoidance, and escape. You’ve got to feel it to heal it.
2. Fully embrace yourself.
You are perfectly imperfect, just like the rest of us. You are not broken — you have just convinced yourself that you are. We all have trauma, pain, and suffering inside. We have all made missteps and mistakes, and we all have done and experienced things that create guilt and shame inside of us. You’re just like the rest of us, so why not embrace and accept yourself? No one is making you hold yourself in the captivity of your past, and you can give yourself permission to release yourself at any time. If there’s anyone who uses your past against you, or uses guilt and shame as a weapon, eliminate them from your life. You deserve better. Guilt and shame are the weapons of the weak.
You have the same material composition as any other human being. There’s nothing that separates you from everyone else except for your relationship with yourself. Please understand that you’re perfectly imperfect — just like everyone else.
I have a client, and we’ll call him Ken. Ken is a high-powered C-suite executive who is highly talented. He had a checkered past and did some things when he was 13 that do not make him proud. This past experience involved manipulating and influencing someone to do something they didn’t want to do, for his benefit. Ken convinced them against their will. He never told anyone before he told me. When he revealed some of the things he had done, tears and shame showed up everywhere. I allowed him to vent, because he had been holding these in for too long.
When he reached a critical point and collected himself, I asked him what he learned from his shameful experience. He said that he has not repeated the behavior since and makes sure he avoids any circumstances that could put him back into a similar situation. He said he wanted to help people, not manipulate them. I helped him understand that his childhood experience, which created guilt and shame for a long time, created a heart of gold. Because he recognized who he didn’t want to be, he chose to be better the rest of his life.
At that point, Ken decided to embrace himself and his past, and his guilt and shame were released that day. You were born perfectly imperfect, and there’s not one single person on this planet of 7.7 billion who hasn’t made a mistake. Forgive yourself. Embrace yourself. Accept yourself fully and watch your entire life begin to feel more free and peaceful. Rejecting yourself hasn’t created peace, has it?
3. Fully embrace others.
When you finally forgive yourself for missteps and mistakes, and when you fully accept yourself, you begin to do the same for others. When you finally stop holding yourself captive, or cease holding yourself accountable for perfection, you begin to release others from those same expectations. Not one person is perfect, but yet we hold others accountable for perfection, too.
One great acronym that changed my life is L.O.V.E. — letting others voluntarily evolve. When we allow others to be perfectly imperfect just like us, we begin to embrace, love, and appreciate who they are instead of our own image of who they should be.
I was driving on the highway one day when I was nearly cut off by a person who didn’t bother looking before changing lanes. I honked my horn, I got super angry, and sped up to let them know that I wasn’t pleased. They sped away because they knew what they had done. I slowed down and cooled off.
A few miles down the road, I was still thinking about the audacity of the person almost hitting me. I put my right blinker on to change lanes to exit the highway and began to change lanes. I heard a loud car horn from the right lane, and I realized that I didn’t look around fully before I started my lane change.
That day I realized that the only time we can judge someone or reject someone’s actions, behaviors, or choices is when we are perfect. Until then, we can only L.O.V.E. them.
4. Decide what you want to be in your life and be it.
If you feel like an imposter, then it’s because you are not fully aligned with your natural gifts and talents. You are putting yourself in a place where you feel you need to be. You have rejected the notion that you get to do what you enjoy in order to preserve your lifestyle or achieve your desires. If you don’t wake up excited to embrace the day, where you will go, what you will do, or who you work with, realize that you’re missing out on the best part of life — living a life designed by you, for you.
I saw a speaker one time talk about how when he was chasing money, he would do anything his clients asked him to do. When he realized that he didn’t have money and he was miserable, he decided to stop doing things that didn’t excite him. He decided there was only one business problem that he would solve, and he tripled his prices. Since he was excited about that thing, he became excited about showing up for his clients, and because he loved doing that thing, the product he created was top quality. His customers began to refer others to him, and his business skyrocketed. He raised prices to slow demand.
In this life, you get to decide what you want to be, and you get to be it. To feel unaligned in your work and life brings suffering and pain to your daily activities. This gives the imposter syndrome free reign to kick in. Rejecting yourself is a key catalyst — and symptom — of the imposter syndrome.
You’ll never feel like a fraud if you are honest with yourself, honest with others, and just show up and do what you love.
5. Surround yourself with those who support your vision for your life.
Not everyone will cheerlead you on to success. Not everyone wants you to live the life of your dreams. Sometimes these people could be family or friends who are also settling for less than they desire. It’s critical to only surround yourself with cheerleaders and supporters instead of people who pull you down.
When my life collapsed, I joined a local mastermind. In that mastermind, I was the only one who was in transition, and there were a few successful millionaire entrepreneurs. I watched how they carried themselves, and it was different from unsuccessful people. They used different words and language, held different beliefs about money, and saw life and business much differently than anyone I had ever been around.
I listened and learned, and naturally my beliefs and approach to life began to shift. I heard how they saw the world, and that opened me up to new possibilities and opportunities. Where I had experienced lack, they saw opportunities. Where I saw roadblocks, they saw challenges and growth.
I’ve been in that mastermind for over 3 years, and my life has changed as result. That group of people changed the way that I perceive everything. I now coach one of those successful millionaires’ businesses. I also help him with life challenges. Things have shifted radically.
Who you invite into your life matters. If they are not for you, they are passively (or actively) working against you. If you surround yourself with unsuccessful people, it’s just a matter of time before you become unsuccessful. Surround yourself with those you wish to emulate, and it’s just a matter of time before you are just like them.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would move humanity to realize that they never need to be or appear to be someone they’re not. I would inspire them to see that when they are not excited about life, it’s because they are living life on someone else’s terms, or they’re living someone else’s vision or dream. I find that so many people are living a life they hate to appease someone they love, or they are doing things that do not inspire them for the sake of outcomes that will not create the happiness they expect.
I would move people everywhere to realize that when you finally decide to show up as yourself, for yourself, and in a state of stewardship for society, you feel a sense of purpose, significance, and value that is unimaginable outside of that unique, authentic alignment.
When we all just show up as ourselves, for ourselves, there’ll be nothing left to hide, and we all can start living soul-out, and stop chasing the illusion of happiness that’s infiltrated our inauthentic society.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Bill Gates. I would love to sit down and learn from the guy who never shied away from who he is, fully embraced his strengths, weaknesses, and desires, created a huge vision, worked tirelessly to materialize that vision, and now continues to be himself while he solves the deeply embedded problems in the world. Bill Gates is the epitome of genius, authenticity, power, and love all wrapped up in an amazing human being.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can connect with my website at www.mikekitko.com, my LinkedIn profile at https://www.linkedin.com/in/mikekitko/, my Facebook business page at https://www.facebook.com/mikekitkocoaching/, and my Instagram page at https://www.instagram.com/mike_kitko/.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thanks for the opportunity! Live powerfully, inside and out!