Beyond Imposter Syndrome : A New Model of Leadership

What is Imposter Syndrome?

First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s, impostor phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.

Though the impostor phenomenon isn’t an official diagnosis listed in the DSM, psychologists and others acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt. Impostor feelings are generally accompanied by anxiety and, often, depression. By definition, most people with impostor feelings suffer in silence, says Imes, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Georgia. “Most people don’t talk about it. Part of the experience is that they’re afraid they’re going to be found out,” she says. Yet the experience is not uncommon, she adds. With effort, you can stop feeling like a fraud and learn to enjoy your accomplishments.

I was thinking about imposter syndrome when reading Shmini, this week’s Torah portion. On the eighth day, following the seven days of their inauguration, Aaron and his sons begin to officiate as kohanim (priests); a fire issues forth from God to consume the offerings on the altar, and the divine presence comes to dwell in the Sanctuary. Who were Aaron and his sons to be offering sacrifices? Did they feel like imposters? And if they did not feel that way before when it worked, how would anyone not fear of being discovered as imposters after the death of Nadav and Avihu, when their “strange fire” does not work. The juxtoposition of their inauguration and the death of these “imposters” makes you think that this hesitation was hardwired into the role of the kohanim.

I was thinking about this when reading Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome in the Harvard Business Review. It turns out that “Imposter syndrome,” or doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud at work, is a diagnosis often given to women. But the fact that it’s considered a diagnosis at all is problematic. The concept, whose development in the ‘70s excluded the effects of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases, took a fairly universal feeling of discomfort, second-guessing, and mild anxiety in the workplace and pathologized it, especially for women. The answer to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to fix individuals, but to create an environment that fosters a number of different leadership styles and where diversity of racial, ethnic, and gender identities is viewed as just as professional as the current model.

What of the implications of this for our understanding of Jewish communal leadership? The creation of Yavneh represented the shift away from the Kohen model of leadership to the Rabbinic enterprise. One cannot help but think that we are in a similar moment of shifting away from the Rabbinic model of leadership. What will be next? Surely, we need to support individuals who stand up to lead our community to get over their Imposter Syndrome. But for this shift to happen, fixing the individuals is not the answer. We need to create an environment that fosters a number of different leadership styles and lift up the diversity of racial, ethnic, and gender identities. We need to expand our notions of holy leadership for everyone to share their authentic offerings without getting burned.


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