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Embracing self-doubt: Why imposter syndrome can be strength in leadership

Imposter word concept written on cubes

ARTICLE SUMMARY

Emma Leith, Board Director at Bridewell explains why recognising and accepting imposter syndrome for what it is can be a hidden strength – and a key driver for success.

AS WE FORGE OUR OWN PATHS IN THE TECH INDUSTRY, WE CAN OFTEN FEEL A STRANGE SENSE OF UNEASE AND SELF-DOUBT, DESPITE OUR ACCOMPLISHMENTS.

We might be tempted to talk ourselves down, or fear being exposed as “less than”. That nagging feeling that we have more to prove compared to our male peers can also cast a shadow on our confidence.

Welcome to the world of imposter syndrome. The population is higher than you might think: three quarters of female executives across industries report experiencing imposter syndrome in their careers. Within tech and cyber, imposter syndrome could be another barrier holding back female leadership and representation. Within tech and cyber, imposter syndrome could be another barrier holding back female leadership and representation, fuelling perceptions of a glass ceiling.

Emma Leith, Board Director at Bridewell

So, are we approaching the issue in the right way? Emma Leith, Board Director at Bridewell explains why recognising and accepting imposter syndrome for what it is can be a hidden strength – and a key driver for success. It’s time we started embracing imposter syndrome, rather than running away from it.

UNMASKING IMPOSTER SYNDROME

Like many things that evoke fear, imposter syndrome becomes much less scary when you remove its disguise and confront it head-on. Despite the negative connotations attached to the term, imposter syndrome often stems from a lack of confidence in unfamiliar or challenging professional situations – something we can all relate to.

For me, imposter syndrome has been a companion throughout my career in tech and cyber. It reared its head when a supportive manager encouraged me to progress from a familiar consultancy role into leading a global team of cyber security professionals across multiple divisions at BP. Another time it appeared was years later, when I became the European Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) at Santander. The self-doubting questions of “why me?” and “am I ready?” often surfaced, but with support from a sponsor, I felt able to recognise the fear for what it was and push forward anyway.

I came to realise that feeling imposter syndrome was a sign I was challenging myself and expanding my horizons. In these moments, I also found myself growing and learning at a quicker rate. My confidence flourished alongside occasional bouts of imposter syndrome, leading me to follow my passion for strengthening cyber security across critical national infrastructure by joining the board and executive leadership team at Bridewell.

To make imposter syndrome a friend, rather than a foe, it’s important to remain humble yet confident in your abilities – and never be afraid to admit when you don’t know something, even if you’re the ‘expert’.

Above all, remember that you are not alone.

FEAR OF FAILING

Imposter syndrome and perfectionism often feed into each other, heightening the fear of failure. And in a male-dominated field like cyber security, women can feel that any misstep or shortcoming is magnified a hundred-fold.

But in an industry where the pace of change and innovation is so rapid, it becomes crucial to embrace calculated risks – and acknowledge failures as valuable learning experiences. This shift in thinking can empower women in tech and cyber to take bold steps and seize new opportunities for professional and personal growth. My own leap into the unknown came when I uprooted my life in Scotland and moved to London to pursue an internal promotion and, only a few years later, a Master’s degree in Information Security.

Not every move will go exactly to plan, but do not worry. I believe dwelling on past outcomes serves little purpose – you made the right call at that time, and many other opportunities can lie ahead.  

WHEN ‘IMPOSTERS’ MAKE GREAT LEADERS

For cyber leaders that have faced imposter syndrome, drawing on personal experiences is a powerful tool for connecting with and supporting team members with similar feelings. Women at the top can become role models within a safe and encouraging environment, not just for other female professionals but also for younger generations and underrepresented groups in the cyber security industry. This includes those entering from different backgrounds or careers, who have taken the brave step of a career change but are still finding their feet.

One key lesson I have learned as a leader is the importance of embracing the concept of “less is more” and encouraging women to be selective with their time and commitments. Additionally, I’m committed to helping others in the tech industry to recognise their inherent resilience. After all, resilience is not about having a smooth and effortless path; it’s about acknowledging adversity and learning how to bounce back stronger each time.  

IT’S NOT A RACE

Patience and perseverance are the building blocks for successful tech leadership. But whether you’re just starting out on your tech career path or holding a position on the board, it’s crucial to remember that it is not a race. Instead of fixating on the next promotion, prioritise doing the best job you can and stay driven by personal and professional development.

A linear career path is not always possible or even desirable.

Imposter syndrome likely will remain a persistent conundrum in the tech industry, but women have the power to embrace it and acknowledge its potential to yield valuable insights and opportunities for growth. Instead of letting imposter syndrome hold you back, why not use it to propel you forward?

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