Bill* was having anxiety each morning before going to the office. He was in a new leadership role and was feeling rather “like a fake.” “Why did I take this position?” he said, “I was comfortable in my old role and now I feel like I’m failing.” Bill’s wife also noticed a difference in him. He was becoming more withdrawn at home, working later than usual, and missing their son’s soccer games – something that was sacred to them in the past.
Bill’s behavior at work was also changing – he often felt, and said, that those under him couldn’t follow his directions, so he ended up micromanaging skilled and seasoned staff. These highly valued staff members began to feel undermined and disrespected. It wasn’t long ago that Bill worked with them as their peer and now he was promoted to an executive role given his fantastic technical skills, interest in moving up the corporate ladder, and being able to speak eloquently about leadership. What could go wrong?
Three things – first, Bill’s wife told him she was worried about him, that he felt distant from her, and their son began to wonder what he did to make his dad to not come to the games; second, Bill’s now subordinates became contentious wondering why their once wonderful colleague was behaving as if they were incompetent; and three, it didn’t go unnoticed by Bill’s superior that he was struggling in his new role and voiced concern to him about the unhappiness of his team. Fortunately, Bill’s boss was empathic. He saw great potential in Bill and encouraged him to seek out a leadership coach. The boss was astute to realize that the issue Bill was facing was something which he, as Bill’s supervisor, couldn’t address well enough. Those three triggers combined motivated Bill – he knew something had to change.
When Bill and I met, he was questioning whether to continue in his new leadership role or accept a demotion to his old role – if it was available. His anxiety was high, and his sleep disturbed. He admitted the thought of a demotion was hard, but he noticed his anxiety decreased thinking about returning to his familiar, lesser role.
During our assessment phase, Bill and I spoke a great deal about his family and life growing up. A prominent theme emerged. Bill’s grandfather was a high school teacher. Bill said many people thought his grandfather should have been teaching at a college or university. He certainly had the training for it but never pursued that career path. Bill’s father was a gifted biologist who worked in a lab as a technician. Again, Bill pondered himself, and was told by many that his dad could have been a leading biologist given his talents but declined at least two promotions. In a particularly delve deep session, Bill spontaneously recalled a quote from his father, “It’s better to not be too visible at work, that way they can’t see your faults.” A light bulb went off for Bill.
Bill was experiencing the Impostor Syndrome[i], not an unusual feeling for leaders. In simple terms, he felt like a fraud. Even though he had all the technical skills and then some, he felt exposed in the leader role. He felt he was being scrutinized by all – his subordinates and superiors – and they could see he didn’t know what he was doing – see his faults. He also felt guilty for surpassing his father’s and grandfather’s level of success.
Bill actually had a good understanding of what it meant to be a leader. He studied it – read books and was a natural leader among his peers. However, he fulfilled his own prophecy handed down to him by his grandfather and father. He abandoned his own leadership beliefs and replaced them with raw emotion and defenses stemming from his perception of his own inadequacy. He began to realize the prophecy was bigger than work – he also felt inadequate as a husband and dad.
We got to work. Bill quickly saw the connection to the past and how he was confusing the past with the present. With our time, in that safe environment, we worked on understanding, reframing, learning, and practicing new behaviors. But something was missing – Bill needed to practice out loud, but safely, in his work environment. We discussed utilizing the team he now leads – his previous peers – to help. After all, they were close colleagues once; they initially were happy that Bill was promoted. Bill knew he disappointed them; he also knew he could do better.
In came the art of humility. Bill realized it was a calculated risk to speak openly with his team about what he learned, but it was a risk he was willing to take. What happened next moved him to the core.
Bill asked for confidentiality first. His team agreed. He was transparent about everything he learned and apologized for his leadership. He told them of the new behaviors he was practicing with me but needed to practice these behaviors at work. He asked them to be mindful of how he made them feel and to give him feedback. He asked them to remind him if he started slipping into old behaviors. He asked for their help to succeed. They all agreed. Bill created his own safe environment at work. He and his team brilliantly worked together to create a new experience. Bill was beyond grateful and humbled by the support he received. I pointed out to him that his courage, and his creation of a safe environment for him, which in turn created a safe environment for all, was outstanding leadership. He looked away for a moment and then looked back at me, “I wish I could talk to my dad about this,” he said. He no longer felt guilty for surpassing him. He felt proud.
When Bill came back to see me for a follow-up appointment months later, we spoke about the success he and his team were experiencing. There were occasional bumps, but his team held true to their word and steered him back. They even got creative and humorous about how to do it, which Bill appreciated. He also told me he was attending every soccer game, and he and his wife are doing ‘date-night Fridays.’ Bill got quiet for a moment, then proceeded, and said that he spoke openly with his son about his work struggles, how he was making changes, and that his son had nothing to do with why he wasn’t coming to the games. You see, Bill was motivated to improve more than his work and himself – most importantly – he wanted to stop the inadequate perception cycle for his son.
*Name changed for confidentiality. Story written with permission from my client.
[i]The Leader on the Couch; Kets de Vries, Manfred; Jossy-Bass, 2006.