Why leaders should behave bravely – even when they don’t feel it

When you’re in charge, feeling like an imposter is easy, say Phil Renshaw and Jenny Robinson – but those who are courageous will reap the benefits

The importance of learning and change is relevant to everyone but never more so than in times of great difficulty such as Covid-19. Leaders, their behaviours and consequences, are also amplified at such times – if evidence is needed simply look at former president Trump. So the question is: in the midst of everything, as leaders, is it possible for us to really see what we are doing? How do we alter our course?  

This formed the basis of a research project – Leaders’ Voices – that we undertook in 2020. The project aims to give voice to leaders’ real unfiltered experience and to examine the nuances and ambiguities that are rarely heard or noticed. In doing so, we expected to reveal the range of personal experiences that demonstrate that leaders are humans, not demi-gods, and that we can all demonstrate aspects of leadership. We asked a range of recognised leaders around the world to consider how they might coach their younger selves if they could go back in time to do so. In other words, to reflect on what they have learned from life. What did we discover?

Being a leader creates dilemma and conflict. Choices and consequences. The very act of leadership is itself, for many, such a choice and yet for others it simply happens. Many are not aware that they are ‘leaders’ consistent with our findings that ‘feeling out of your depth’ (often referred to as imposter syndrome) was a crucial theme from our study’s participants. They confided that like many others, they can feel that they don’t belong or that soon they will be found out. These leaders told us that they had too often faltered and bent themselves out of shape to fit in and that the inner voice of the imposter followed them almost daily.

But with the benefit of hindsight most of our participants saw that feeling substandard was a mixed blessing. On the one hand it was often what spurred them on to work hard and achieve a lot. But, on the other hand it often left them unable to celebrate their success or take pride in a job well done. This can take its toll on mental health even in the most esteemed leader. 

And still, in contrast to their fears of failure, they pushed themselves to be brave. In coaching their younger selves we heard: “keep pushing yourself to speak up”, “be bold” and have “the courage”. They advocated the need to “work on my bravery, get out of my comfort zone”. Some went as far as to point out “feel confident, you’re a leader for a reason”.

These are two strong and clashing forces that need to be navigated. Feeling out of your depth does not seem the natural habitat of those who suffer from feeling like an imposter. And being brave is likely to aggravate that very sense of being out of your depth. Yet bravery is unimportant if you know you can succeed. Its importance rises with that sense of uncertainty. Being brave becomes fundamental to success. Indeed, we are advocates of mindfulness which, contrary to many people’s expectations, teaches us to approach difficulty. Not to avoid it. But to be aware of our feelings and to manage that awareness whilst considering our options. We see a strong parallel between being mindful and our leaders’ voices to be brave.

We often hear that it is lonely at the top. No wonder. These insights show the vulnerability that can lie inside even the (seemingly) most confident leader. Yet with a simple question, our leaders could see plainly the dilemma and the answer. The learning for them and for others was to take a healthy dose of their own advice – to be brave. The advice to their younger selves speaks to the value in challenging one’s own perception of the very sense of being an imposter in the first place, to apply bravery by acknowledging this directly. 

We argue that we are all leaders in some way or another and that we come together in leadership. As parents we undoubtedly seek to act like leaders, being role models, guiding our children to learn for themselves whilst keeping them aware of any boundaries. And hence we can and do bring these same capabilities to work with us. These leaders’ voices tell us that we all need to be brave occasionally and feel good for doing so.

Dr Phil Renshaw is a visiting fellow at Cranfield School of Management and Jenny Robinson is a PhD student at Henley Business School.