How to turn imposter syndrome to your advantage

Written by Ann Francke OBE Monday 21 June 2021
Brand guru Rita Clifton CBE talks about self-doubt, Olivia Colman, and being true to yourself
Ann Francke

Leaders are meant to present themselves as strong and infallible, with rock-solid self-belief. But leaders are no less human than anyone else, and just as susceptible to moments of doubt and vulnerability.

What’s known as “imposter syndrome” was the topic of our latest Better Managers Briefing when I had an opportunity to discuss leadership with a leader I've known and admired for decades.

During the course of her career – which has included being strategy director at Saatchi & Saatchi and London CEO and chair of global brand consultancy Interbrand – Rita Clifton CBE has been called “brand guru” by the Financial Times and “the doyenne of branding” by Campaign magazine. Alongside her board-chairing and non-executive roles at John Lewis and Nationwide, Rita is a practitioner, keynote speaker and writer on all aspects of brands, branding and business leadership. Rita has just launched a learning and development venture, Leaderbrand, and recently published a book entitled Love your Imposter: Be your best self, flaws and all.

Bringing humanity to the fore

Rita wrote the book, she says, out of a sense of frustration but also mission. “I was getting increasingly annoyed with how business can sometimes be seen as an inhuman place occupied by some Dr Evil who wakes up in the morning and thinks about how to destroy the environment and rip off shareholders,” she says. “But that’s not my experience of the people that I work with in business, who are very decent human beings trying to do the right thing in the main. Bringing out that humanity is going to be important if we're going to create the kind of future we want.”

In Rita’s view, we must understand that leaders experience feelings of insecurity too, including imposter syndrome – the sense that you don’t actually deserve your job and accomplishments. Research suggests as many as 70% of people experience this feeling. (The Oscar-winning actress Olivia Colman, for example, has explained that every time she goes on set, she thinks she's going to get fired.) Studies also show that women, particularly women of colour, and people in the LGBTQ community are at higher risk of imposter syndrome.

“I've experienced imposter syndrome through most of my working life,” says Rita, “and in my book, I wanted to reassure readers that suffering this kind of lack of confidence is a normal, human thing, and to share some of the things that I've experienced over the years and found to be effective in dealing with them.

“But the mission of my book is to make the case for a much better and well-balanced set of leaders at the top of our organisations, a new type of leader who reflects, who can be more open about their humanity and what they’re feeling and, therefore, have more empathy with their employees, customers and stakeholders.”

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Using the weight of your imposter to win

You’ll need a change of mindset to deal with imposter syndrome, says Rita. “In some weird and wonderful way, I found my own imposter feelings quite useful,” she explains. “I recognised that the point at which you think everything is going pear-shaped or you worry that you're not going to be good enough or you deserve don’t to be there…these are the moments that can actually drive you to stretch yourself, practise more, work harder and so on. For instance, Olivia Colman says the fear of getting fired propels her to give her very best performance.

“I spoke to a martial arts expert who explained to me that in judo, you don't win by beating your opponent and fighting with them, you win by using their weight to your advantage. Use the weight of your imposter to help you win, stretch yourself, do more, and develop yourself further.”

Of course, Rita recognises that there is a small minority of people who find their imposter feelings very debilitating, almost paralysing. “They should seek professional help for that, because you mustn’t allow these feelings to spiral. If you can't learn to love your imposter, at least learn to recognise and live with it,” she says.

Branding what you stand for

Rita says she has found her knowledge of brand thinking to be helpful on a personal level. “Like the world’s most valuable brands, you need to have clarity about what you stand for and a coherence about how that shows up through everything you do.” It is fundamentally important, argues Rita, to understand what it is that drives you, your priorities, purpose, goals and values. “Understanding yourself and having a clear self-awareness means you can be more in control of managing what it is that drives you.

“And like a good brand, you've got to keep on making sure that you are reinventing yourself, finding out new things, being curious and nosey about the broader world, because that's how we renew ourselves and move on.”

You can watch our conversation in full here.

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