I (Joanne) was recently writing a follow-up piece on Rick Langer’s and my book, The Call to Follow that addressed the importance of leading as a follower of Christ. It addressed two aspects leaders, even as faithful followers, face: anxiety and "imposter syndrome," that nagging inability to believe that one's success is legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills.
As a friend reviewed the original, longer version of this piece, she reflected on a difficult time in a leadership context in Washington DC. She commented that she knew few if any people who led as if they were answering a call from Jesus. It seemed to her that the fact-value split was as wide as the Grand Canyon in the minds of those who lead in Washington. For many professing Christian leaders, church was just a box checked on Sunday; success is all about climbing your own ladder, while simultaneously pulling out the ladders of others (though few would admit the latter). It is as if there are two separate worlds, one in which God fights His religious battles, and another in which we fight this-world battles to actually get things done.
How might your thoughts and experiences relate to hers and perhaps be more informed after reading this and our next post?
Lieutenant General Robert VanAntwerp (Van) and I have been friends for many years and over the years I’ve been shaped by his godly wisdom and life experiences. In 1993, then Colonel Robert VanAntwerp (Van) was confronted with a “Bet Your Bar” decision, a decision of great potential impact on people, places, or things that could end a career. He and his team saw that the inflows coming from the upper watershed of the Gila River were so large that they threatened to top the spillway of the dam down river and compromise its integrity. While releasing water out of the outlet would take the pressure off the dam and spillway, this move would flood thousands of square miles downstream, threatening the livelihood of thousands of farmers and small rural communities.
The team met regularly with community leaders in “town hall” meetings to get their point of view and feel their pain while educating them on the dilemma with the dam and spillway if major releases from the outlet were to work. One particular town hall was packed with over 80 people in a room designed for 40. You could feel the tension in the air. One of the mega-farm farmers began to speak in a loud voice that quieted the crowd and said, “Colonel, we farmers live and die by Mother Nature and we have had good years and really tough years that include flooding, but no man is going to determine weeks ahead of time to flood our property based on some gauges in the mountains. You hold that water back to the last minute and don’t let one drop pass out of that dam that you don’t need to to ensure safety of that dam.”
Van told his Division Commander that he planned to hold until the last possible minute. The Commander reminded him that the Corps had never lost a dam and then said to do whatever he thought was right. Pressure mounted from both sides. Van decided to hold. The water eventually went 4 feet over the spillway and the dam was saturated, but it held. Had the rain lasted even one more day, the outcome could have been very different. On that “Bet Your Bar” decision day, Colonel VanAntwerp thanked God for leading his heart and his head.
We often claim of leadership that it is lonely at the top. This loneliness can come from two different sources. First, external challenges highlight the loneliness experienced by the decision maker. These are found most clearly in crisis situations, where quick and sound decisions must be made. They demand the best of what we bring to a solution. Anything less is unacceptable. Such was the situation VanAntwerp faced.
Second, there are internal challenges that are chronic and manifest in a phenomenon known as the Imposter Syndrome. Many, like my friend, are unfamiliar with Imposter Syndrome and did not realize how common intellectual self-doubt is. Why are these feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and intellectual fraudulence so prevalent despite accomplished successes or proof of expertise? And how can this fear of being “found out,” that appears to be increasing among business leaders, be addressed?
A survey taken of 500 UK business owners and senior managers between November 24-30, 2022 found 78% of business leaders experienced Imposter Syndrome and 47% were currently suffering symptoms of this condition, causing nearly 60% to leave or consider leaving their job. Triggers that contributed to this self-doubt included:
Starting out in a new role.
Receiving praise in front of colleagues.
Carrying out meetings with team members.
Carrying out performance reviews.
Giving presentations in front of team members.
Being asked questions in front of the wider team.
Though seen as a personal issue, consequences affecting work performance and personal lives can result.
If you view leadership as the outcome of having climbed the ladder and accumulated achievements that justify your rise to power, your leadership is a heavy mantle–an achievement you continually need to justify and validate. No wonder we feel burdened and no wonder our decisions are scary and no wonder we feel like imposters.
As an alternative, Christians need to learn to view leadership as answering a call from Jesus. You are a disciple; when Jesus calls, you answer. It just so happened that he called you to lead. When he did so, he did not put a badge on your chest, nor did he sit you in a seat of honor, nor did he move you into the C-suite. He invited you to share his yoke. Christians follow their way to leadership as a yoked leader–it isn’t so much a mantle of personal achievement as it is a shared yoke of service. As you take up his yoke, he doesn’t abandon the yoke to your care, you just join him in his work. He is fully aware of your “Bet your Bar” challenges and the episodes of Imposter Syndrome. He is still yoked to you, and you to him; you're a yokemate. See our next post, “Leading as a Yokemate.”