The Reflection Pool

Will the Real Impostor Please Stand Up?

Do you ever hear a little voice in your head that says, “I have no idea how I got to be where I am, but I just hope that nobody finds me out!”?

I’ve just finished a close read of Intentional Interruption by Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack. I highly recommend this excellent book on professional learning through collaborative inquiry. Each chapter is full of provocative statements and wisdom about what true learning is and how humans behave when faced with new ideas. I am particularly interested in the mental barriers we all bring to learning (Chapter 5: The Barriers: How Our Minds Get in the Way).


One of these is that we don’t want people to see our vulnerabilities.  We present the strongest and best version of ourselves. Most of us try very hard to avoid anyone seeing us as weak in any areas. Along with this fear of others’ seeing our weaknesses, we can experience what Katz and Ain Dack call “the imposter syndrome” (p. 46), that same little voice I asked about the beginning of this post.

I’ll admit it, I’ve heard the voice. It comes when colleagues discuss concepts or ideas that I don’t really understand. It shows up when my boss asks me a question, and I don’t know how to answer. I can hear it when a parent or guardian questions one of my decisions, and I fumble for my reasoning. Its power comes from our belief that we are the only ones who hear it. Because it silences us, it can really get in the way of participation and engagement in new ideas and thus new learning.

The reality is, of course, that everyone hears this little voice.  We all feel vulnerable at one time or another and think someone is going to figure out that we don’t really know what we are doing. As leaders, we can use the knowledge of this common experience to increase trust and improve relationships in our schools.

Principals create the culture of the school and of professional learning and collaboration. We can help others overcome the mental barrier of hiding their vulnerabilities by showing our own. When we learn with staff and students, we can admit we don’t know something. We can ask questions when someone uses a word or a term that we don’t understand. And, as Katz and Ain Dack suggest, we can explicitly tell someone that during the learning process they will feel like an impostor, but when it happens, there are ways to respond to that emotion.

This year, I plan to bring the impostor syndrome into the light.  Can you think of ways you can do the same in your work?

1 thought on “Will the Real Impostor Please Stand Up?

  1. You are so correct! We all hear that voice but it is sometimes so difficult to admit it (or listen to it!). I loved that chapter and have of reflected on it at different times over the last few months. I often think how much further along we would be if we could get past the feeling that we need to always know everything and/ or be right. I’ve realized that the more I know, the more I need to learn. It’s also helped me realize that we need to do things in new, creative and unconventional ways if we want real change to happen.

    Thanks Sue for bringing the unspoken truth to the conversation.

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