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Level up leadership: beyond imposter syndrome

Becky Bosco, Senior Director of Corporate Communications, Optica and Ashley Collier, Corporate Communications Manager, Optica

As we continue to navigate the ever-evolving world of work, there’s one quality that stands out as essential in today’s successful leaders: humility. Humble leadership encourages open-mindedness, fosters growth through psychological safety, and paves the way for true collaboration.

The 2023 Optica Level Up Leadership, held 22-26 March at Optica’s Washington D.C. headquarters, brought together 70 early career professionals from 18 countries. Attendees gained knowledge about leadership skills to advance their careers to the next level. Sessions covered an extensive array of topics that impact, influence, and shape what it means to be an inspirational leader at all levels of a career.

According to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, people of high ability often have a low awareness of that ability. In industry and academia, this psychological phenomenon has a name – imposter syndrome. Facilitator Hannah Roberts, Ph.D. led a robust discussion about imposter syndrome and how to quiet your inner critic.


Roberts identified three layers that leaders experience with imposter syndrome. In this first layer, individuals feel they need to prove themselves because they believe their position or role was unearned or undeserving and that you “got lucky.” Roberts noted these three feelings could lead to burnout. The second layer, over-crediting others describes our obsession with not being able to accept praise and instead, training people to look away from us. Roberts added that over-crediting others leads us to feel resentful, and even isolated. The final and third layer is minimizing language, we squash our achievement with the expressions we use. “Instead of novel, ground-breaking, or amazing, we say it was ‘no big deal,’ and over time we start to tune in to our own rhetoric, and also believe it as the truth,” said Roberts.

We all have days of questioning ourselves, but imposter syndrome is different. Imposter syndrome is distinguished by the anxiety that you’re always in danger of being “found out to not be quite good enough.” This can come with some uncomfortable signs and symptoms such as overworking, procrastination, inability to speak up or set and maintain boundaries, and other self-sabotaging behaviors. You may attribute your success or accomplishments to lucky breaks or the generous help of other people. Roberts shared that feeling like an impostor can keep you overworked, underpaid and underappreciated for years – possibly decades?

Why do we feel imposter syndrome?

1. Family and behavioral developments

  • If we grow up in a negative environment, it will leave a lasting impact on us. However, even children who live in a positive environment can also grow into little imposters. When we celebrate our children for their achievements in sports and academics, what the hcild hears is, they are loved. In order for children to feel “more loved,” they believe they have to achieve more, which is the route to overachievers.

2. Specific incidents that trigger limiting beliefs, behaviors or emotions 

  • A limiting belief, behavior or emotions is something that we hold to be true but it limits our experience of life. For example, “I don’t know enough,” “I’m not good at this,” or “I’m not worthy enough.” Even, “I’ve not got enough time” can be a limiting belief. The good news is, you can overcome these feelings.

3. Discrimination events

  • Environmental, cultural, privilege-based, and institutionalized discrimination events can trigger feelings of Imposter Syndrome. Roberts noted imposter syndrome is a collection of limiting thoughts, beliefs, and emotions that are epitomized by pushing through, getting anxious, self-sabotage, or avoidance.

There are real consequences for catering to imposter syndrome

People with imposter syndrome are less likely to be able to catalog their own accomplishments. This gives them a severe disadvantage when it comes to personal branding. It also makes them less likely to take risks, meet new professional contacts or represent themselves. Worse, your low self-esteem can quickly become a characteristic that your peers and supervisors grow weary of being around. If this sounds like you, you must know that conquering these baseless doubts is critical.

Steps to improving your outlook:

  • Remind yourself that you’ve earned a seat at the table. The work you put into your degree and research demonstrate discipline and perseverance. It’s not bragging if it’s a fact.
  • The thought and care you invested in your work are evidence that you can thrive independently and can teach yourself anything.
  • You have soft skills beyond your education – even if you are an early career professional.

Many people are torn – afraid to speak up, be seen, or minimize their achievements and at the same time, are frustrated that they are getting in their own way. Feeling like you will be exposed to not knowing enough and being your worst critic is a toxic combination for your mental health. It can result in procrastination, individualism, and ruminating thoughts.

Roberts offered guidance to refocus your energy in a way that will help minimize feelings of imposter syndrome and lead with humility.

  1. Thinking and thanking: You’ve reached this point in your career because you put in the effort. Take the time to think through and reflect on your accomplishments to date. Intentionally reach out to leaders, mentors, and teachers who have guided you along the way and thank them.
  2. Make and review your ‘I rock’ file: Keep a file of your achievements and positive feedback that you have gained and regularly add to it and review the contents.
  3. Go on a ‘comparisonitis’ diet: Comparing yourself unfavorably to others will only leave you with feelings of being substandard in some way which is rocket fuel to your inner critic.
  4. Uncover your limiting beliefs: You may have identified a number of limiting beliefs you hold about yourself while reading these pages. Moving beyond these beliefs using coaching tools and techniques opens our full potential.
  5. Be vulnerable: Imposter Syndrome has us stuck in the safety zone, by feeling the fear and doing it anyway we are pushing the fear boundaries. Over time, you will become more comfortable in these situations. That’s when it’s time to rechallenge yourself.
  6. Growth mindset: Humble leaders embrace a growth mindset, which empowers them to admit their limitations, learn from their mistakes, and continuously evolve. With this approach, they create an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas without fear of judgment.
  7. Empathy and active listening: Through the lens of empathy and active listening, leaders work to genuinely understand the needs, challenges, and aspirations of their team members. This approach cultivates trust and a sense of belonging - crucial ingredients for a high-performing team.
  8. Intentional feedback loops: Leaders who actively seek feedback value their team members' perspectives. This two-way communication enhances decision-making, drives innovation, and creates an organic environment of continuous improvement.
  9. Team empowerment: A supported team leads to members who take ownership and responsibility for their work output. Individual members then feel increased engagement, motivation, and overall productivity increases.

Today’s leaders need to be flexible despite changing organizational circumstances. Those leaders who have a team of empowered professionals supporting them will experience greater growth and influence. Let’s celebrate and embrace humble leadership as it strengthens teams and leads to personal success.

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