Imposter Phenomenon, Humility Leadership


Veteran Resources

Date: Author:

Sarah Harrison

I attended the Student Veterans of America Conference in January and I was happy to attend a breakout session called “Imposter Phenomenon, Humility Leadership”. Presented by RJ Jenkins, Columbia University. The reason being when trying to help transitioning military and Veterans they downplay their skills and successes which underserves them in their transition to a new career in civilian life, which is already unfamiliar territory. They need more than ever to be confident and communicate clearly about their military achievements to secure the appropriate level of position. 

Imposter Phenomenon (IP) has been described as a consistent, quiet nagging feeling, of self-doubt, and insecurity. It does not impede performance or compromise achievement, however, there is continuous self-questioning, “how did I get here?”, fearful statements “they will realize I don’t deserve this”, or justification statements, “I got this because……”

I.P. sufferers consistently self-undervalue and feel they “do not fit”, they attribute their success to external factors such as timing, team effort, and luck, as opposed to internal factors like intelligence, talent, and skill, despite robust evidence to indicate they are skilled, talented, successful and deserving.

IP is not a mental illness, but it can be associated with co-morbidities such as anxiety and depression, a lack of self-confidence and frequently a desire for perfectionism. Many people will suffer from IP at various stages of their life/careers.

IP will respond better to warmth reassurance and a hug over being metaphorically “beaten” for it.  The speaker, RJ Jenkins, suggests reframing IP is best. If we experience it as a negative stressor then it will have a negative impact on our mental and physical well-being.

Looking at the other factors associated with individuals suffering from IP they include:

  1. Consistent high achievers.
  2. High performers.
  3. Enthusiasm for others.
  4. They promote team over self.
  5. They “read” the environment.
  6. They are hungry for feedback.

The assessment is better reframed as a humble person in a new situation, who makes no assumptions about their abilities and is prepared to learn. They are leaning more toward underconfidence but with that comes greater self-reflection. Asking themselves if they have earned a seat at the table. They are typically surrounded by people that are ostensibly further up the learning curve and exhibit confidence sometimes overly so, to the detriment of a successful outcome.  

The opposite of IP is the overconfident person, who never doubts their “right” to be at the table, so needs no self-reflection, and can appear both arrogant and ignorant.

The individual with IP is in fact much more of a humble leader, who lifts others and recognizes success as a team effort. Who would you prefer to go to war with, ……….. or have on your team at work?

As a veteran mid transition, if you find yourself undervaluing or doubting your abilities. Stop, realistically reflect. Those successes are a testament to the skills of you and the team/s you have worked with. Own it!