How Nonprofit EDs Can Own Their Leadership Role and Let Go of Imposter Syndrome

October 1, 2019
5 minutes

It happens to the best of us. You’re going along with your super satisfying work as an Executive Director—things are going great, your staff seems to be doing well, work is getting done. But just when you think you’re in the clear, something happens that casts a shadow of doubt in your mind. It may not even be a big thing, but it’s enough for you to start spiraling down a path of self-doubt and question your abilities as a leader. 

Don't worry, ED. You're only human and we've all been there. Leadership of any kind is hard work, and leading a nonprofit is no exception. But beware of falling into old thought habits that undermine your confidence and ownership of your role. That'll only hold you back from showing up as the best darn ED you can be.

These types of habits and thought patterns are hard to break, and that's why we want to help you out, ED. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite advice to help you let go of imposter syndrome and self-sabotage for good. And don't worry—this is a woo-woo free zone. So, we'll steer clear of suggesting you begin each day with an awkward mirror affirmation or start referring to yourself in third-person to express your feelings (not that there's anything wrong with those things!).

Own your strengths 

The term imposter syndrome was coined back in the 1970s and is used today to describe the internalized feeling that you are a fraud in the workplace and that all of your accomplishments are insignificant and unworthy of praise. Pretty harsh if you ask us! If this sounds like something you’ve bumped up against, it’s time to let go of those false narratives and own your accomplishments and strengths. 

If you're a humble leader, referring to your personal accomplishments with a ‘we’ pronoun instead of ‘I' just comes naturally. While it's true that you do lead a team and that team is responsible for a lot of great outcomes, there are some accomplishments that you just need to own. We encourage you to take a step back and really think about your role in achieving those outcomes. We bet you did a whole lot more than your letting on.

Take action: Make a list of your recent accomplishments and practice saying, “I did…” It might feel strange at first but it will help you internalize your awesomeness. 

Set realistic expectations

Sometimes self-sabotage at work takes the form of perfectionism or just unrealistic expectations. We tend to think that because we’re the leader, we must hold ourselves to an impossible standard. First things first—you don’t. And secondly—this might not be setting a healthy example for your staff. 

Sure, there are times when it’s great to challenge yourself and push the envelope. But it doesn’t need to be that way all day every day. On top of that, setting unrealistic expectations can add to your stress level and lead you down a path to other self-sabotaging habits like procrastination.

Take action: If you need to reset your expectations, start small. Take a look at your to-do list for today as well as your schedule and find one or two things you can remove. Let them go and focus on fewer things so that you can actually complete everything on your list today. 

Let go of the comparison 

We see you over there stuck in the endless scroll of social media. Yeah, we have a love/hate relationship with social, too. We love it because it connects us and can be a source of inspiration. We hate it because it can lead to unnecessary comparison. The moment you catch yourself thinking, “If only I was like…” it’s time to disrupt the comparison. Sometimes this thinking can even stem from other non-social media areas of our lives. 

Take action: In that moment you can make an active switch to positive self-talk (sounds a little woo-woo, but bear with us). Take that moment to praise yourself for something you’re really great at. You can also use that moment for compassionate self-inquiry. Be curious about what’s driving your need to compare yourself to others. Remember, you are the only measure of your own success. 

Lead from your values

One way to own your leadership role is to lead from your values. These are the fundamental guiding principles that shape how you show up as a leader. Being in touch with those values helps you be your most true self. Of course, we can’t always be in alignment with our values 100% of the time. We get distracted, there’s a crisis, we get frustrated, and so on.

Take action: Make a list of the values that you hold dear as a leader. When you find yourself not showing up as the kind of leader you want to be, hit the pause button. Ask yourself, “If I was leading with (insert value here) right now, what would I do?” Use this to help you get back on track and feeling like your most confident self. I

Be present and self-aware

One of the best ways to let go of imposter syndrome and self-sabotage is to cultivate your self-awareness. It’s all too easy (for so many reasons!) to be out of touch with ourselves. But when we check in with ourselves in the moment to see how we’re feeling and how those feelings are motivating our actions, we can curb self-sabotage. Here are a few ways you can practice this. 

  • Set a random alarm (or two) on your phone for your workday. When the alarm goes off simply ask yourself, “How am I doing?” 
  • In moments when you’re feeling down on yourself, try your best to notice what’s happening. Why are you feeling that way? What can you do to turn things around? 

ED, your work is hard enough on its own. Don’t let Debbie Downer, aka imposter syndrome and self-sabotage, get in your way. Practice these strategies and work on your mindset so you can get back to owning your awesomeness as a leader. And P.S., these are practices you can bring to your staff to help them cultivate their leadership, too. Talk about a double whammy.

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