Transforming imposter syndrome into leadership

Transforming imposter syndrome into leadership

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Emma Leith, director of consulting at Bridewell shares her personal experience with impostor syndrome and how she turned this self-doubt into a superpower.

As women make significant strides in the tech industry they often experience an unaccountable sense of unease and self-doubt, despite all their accomplishments.

From personal experience I recognise there is a danger of talking yourself down, allied to a fear of exposure as “less than”. As women, we can believe we always have more to prove than our male peers, casting a shadow over our confidence.

This is impostor syndrome – and those experiencing it are more numerous than you might imagine. Some three-quarters of female executives across many industries say they have gone through it at some point. Within the very male tech and cyber world, these feelings could present another barrier to female leadership and representation – another glass ceiling.

It’s worth asking, then, if we are approaching this phenomenon in the right way, because recognising and accepting impostor syndrome for what it is can be a hidden strength – and a key driver for success. It could be time to embrace impostor syndrome instead of seeking to flee from it.

First, confront the impostor

Like many things that provoke fear, impostor syndrome becomes much less worrying when you remove its disguise and confront it head-on.

In reality it often stems from a lack of confidence in unfamiliar or challenging professional situations - something we can all relate to.

Speaking personally, imposter syndrome has been a companion throughout my career in tech and cyber. It reared its head when a supportive manager encouraged me to progress from a familiar consultancy role into leading a global team of cyber security professionals at BP.

It then re-appeared much later, when I became the European Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) at Santander. The self-doubting questions of “why me?” and “am I ready?” frequently surfaced, but with support from a sponsor, I felt able to recognise the fear for what it was and push forward anyway.

I realised that my experience of impostor syndrome was a sign I was challenging myself and expanding my horizons. In these moments, I also found myself growing and learning at a quicker rate. My confidence flourished, despite the occasional blip, leading me to follow my passion for strengthening cyber security across critical national infrastructure by joining the board and executive leadership team at Bridewell.

To make impostor syndrome an ally, rather than a foe, it’s important to remain humble yet confident in your abilities – and never be afraid to admit you don’t know something, even if people regard you as the ‘expert’. But we all experience this so remember… you are not alone.

Learn from it and drive on

Unfortunately, there is often a very close relationship between feeling an impostor and desiring perfection, heightening the fear of failure. In a male-dominated field like cyber security, women also feel any misstep or shortcoming will likely be magnified a hundred-fold.

But this is an industry where the pace of change and innovation is so rapid you must embrace calculated risks - and acknowledge failures as valuable learning experiences. This shift in thinking can empower women in tech to take bold steps and seize new opportunities for professional and personal growth.

Not every move will go exactly to plan, but there is no cause for alarm. Dwelling on past outcomes serves little purpose – you made the right decision at that time, and many other opportunities are certain to lie ahead.

Drawing on personal experience is also a powerful tool when providing support to colleagues with similar feelings of imposture. Women at the top can become role models within a safe and encouraging environment. One essential lesson for me as a leader is the importance of embracing the concept of “less is more” and encouraging women to be selective with their time and commitments. I’m also firmly committed to helping others in the tech industry recognise their inherent resilience.

Instead of focusing obsessively on achieving the next promotion, we should ensure we do the best job we can and remain motivated by personal and professional development. We must be realistic and accept impostor syndrome is likely to persist in the tech industry but understand that women have the power to embrace it. Instead of letting impostor syndrome drag down our progress, we should use it to drive forward.

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