It’s not impostor syndrome if it really looks like this

Erin Lewellen, the CEO of Global Citizen Year, maintains that this label is a way of shaming, and perpetuates the very type of oppressive leadership we need to change.  

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On my first day as CEO of Global Citizen Year, I looked in the mirror and did not see a CEO looking back at me. I did not see a male face, or a smooth Ivy-Leaguer, or even a recent Stanford dropout turned tech exec in an expensive hoodie.

In the mirror, I saw a logger’s daughter: a blue-collar girl from tiny Cedar Flat, Oregon, who maintained her penchant for raging against the machine, and the CEOs who run said machine. A queer woman who grew up giving directions like “it’s up the river from us,” and who went to college across that river, precisely 12 miles from where she grew up. A coach at heart, someone who got a high school varsity coaching job at the age of 24 because no one else would take it, and coached for the next 20 years all while navigating the whole career thing. Someone with a nice mix of moxie and grit, but not “traditional” CEO material. I looked in the mirror and saw an impostor.

Feeling I’d fallen prey to classic impostor syndrome, I spoke with an executive coach, Jennifer McClanahan, the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. I was talking with her about working with our senior leadership team to map a new way of working together, one less rooted in classic hierarchy. When I mentioned that I was wondering about impostor syndrome, she asked me: “Is this actually impostor syndrome? Or do you just not see yourself leading in the same way that CEOs have traditionally led?” That really got me thinking.

When I describe any sort of discomfort with the traditional CEO approach, I am told to boss up, or labeled as a woman with classic imposter syndrome. This makes it my issue, my problem to solve. I have the syndrome, therefore I am the problem. This label, this way of shaming, perpetuates the very type of oppressive leadership we need to change.

Syndrome is an appropriate way to describe what plagues our current stack of leaders. How would we describe the syndrome of a traditional CEO who makes millions while their hourly workforce doesn’t have health insurance? How would we describe the syndrome of our political leaders who are focused solely on maintaining their own power and status, not serving the people?

Craving and hoarding personal power is not mandatory CEO behavior. In my effort to understand my potential impostor syndrome, I considered which leaders I admire and why. My short list, featuring exactly zero famous names, include Diana Fair (a female executive in the food industry ahead of her time), Precious Shelton and Jazmine Castaneda (two former captains of the basketball team I coached), Elikem Tomety Archer (our chief program officer at Global Citizen Year), my mom, and my wife.

These are their common traits that shape and inspire my leadership in this new role:

  • Advancement toward the collective goal is paramount, superseding accumulation of personal power.

  • They don’t front. Their exterior persona reflects their true self.

  • They know what they don’t know, understand that they will never know everything, and attune their bullshit detectors to anyone who purports to know it all.

  • They feel in their bones how much the people around them matter.

If you look in the mirror and don’t see a reflection of any famous traditional leader, stop calling this impostor syndrome. That burden does not belong to us. Instead, let’s set new examples for how to lead. For me, that means:

  • Credit for success is distributed widely.

  • Excellent work gets done, but no single person alone drives this work or the decisions.

  • Collaboration and connection trump callousness and covetousness.

These revelations obviously didn’t happen overnight. It isn’t easy, working against the current, but these are some of the leadership practices that have helped me get here and keep me going.

Start the day reading from the great thinkers and feelers–not business leadership books. They have a place, but they don’t help me lead differently. The humility that comes from reading the works of activists, poets, and philosophers is unparalleled–there can’t be better medicine for CEOs than sitting with timeless questions, and remembering we don’t have the answers.

Own the mistake, even when it hurts, as a human. When I do I help facilitate an environment where people act not from fear, but from confidence.

When decisions are made at the senior level, give your team some context. Why are we heading in this direction? Why did we make that decision? As CEO, I have context that many on staff don’t, and I can’t ignore the inherent power dynamics at play. I try to consistently ask myself, “what context may be missing for the team that I am able to provide?” Without context, building common understanding is impossible. Without context, we can’t do our best work together.

Ultimately, current systems are all about inertia. They keep moving forward because we, consciously or not, perpetuate them. We even invent syndromes for people who don’t comply. I’ve continued looking in the mirror every morning. Now I see looking back at me the CEO that I was meant to be.

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Global Citizen Year is moving forward as part of our new, larger brand: Tilting Futures. New name, same mission, expanded programs and impact.