How To Flip Imposter Syndrome

Self doubt can make a leader relatable—as long as it doesn't stop their mission
February 27, 2020 Updated: February 27, 2020
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A couple of years ago I was in Los Angeles and I had just finished a project that I had been working on since before I retired from the military. It was a book about the Village Stability program that helped Afghan villagers stand up on their own against the Taliban. I wanted to share our experiences, both good and bad, and everything that we learned, with the next generation of war fighters. I wanted to be able to give this project  the continuity I felt it deserved.

The book took two years to write. 5,000 interviews with village elders, special operators, diplomats, and communications experts went into this book.  It was an exhausting process.

One the  greatest authors on the planet, in my opinion, Steven Pressfield, had agreed to review the manuscript. We had a common interest in stabilizing the tribes of Afghanistan and he loved our approach.

I was leaving my hotel to meet Steve for breakfast with the manuscript in my hand and everything changed. The imposter syndrome kicked in, and it kicked in hard. I decided I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t ready, it wasn’t worth his time yet. I needed to do some more work. I’d never written a book before. I’m not an author. What were my peers in Special Forces going to think? I’ll be found out!

I was walking around the hotel frantically, trying to talk myself into going to see Steve. As I paced around the motel room, my foot caught the corner of the bed and I fell. Hard. When I tripped this manuscript that was held together by a single butterfly clip went into the air. I watched it explode, paper after paper floating down, like a cruel snow storm, all around me.

The papers lay scattered everywhere on the floor. I looked at my watch. I had 20 minutes before my meeting with Steve. So, that was it. I took it as a sign to call off the meeting. 

Defeated, I gave my Dad, Rex, a call and I let him know what happened. I gave him every excuse I had. This was not the time. The manuscript wasn’t ready. My Dad kept pushing back with reasons to still give him the manuscript. Finally, when I realized he just didn’t get it, I exploded, “Dad, who am I to be writing a book like this and taking Steve Pressfield’s time?”

A pause, and then my Dad’s level voice, “Who are you not to, son? What happens if you don’t write this book? What will those future special operators, including your son, lose from you not sharing the lessons you learned? Who are you not to do this? That’s the question you should be asking. You are right where you belong.”

The imposter syndrome is a common mindset for authentic, relatable leaders. We are going to question ourselves. We are going to ask ourselves, “Who am I to be standing in front of the boss asking for this resource? Who am I to be standing in front of this seasoned prospect trying to make them a client with my inexperienced background? Who am I to propose this nonprofit when I don’t know anything about this kind of work? Who am I to go in there and do this presentation to the board, when I’m the most junior associate?”

Rather than asking yourself, “Who am I to do this?”, ask yourself, “Who am I not to do this?” Because you are depriving us of the gifts that you were given and the world needs those gifts. We’re hungry for authentic, relatable leaders who can overcome the imposter syndrome mindset and make a deep impact in this world. The men and women who stand to make the biggest change in the world are the ones most susceptible to imposter syndrome.

What if I had listened to my imposter syndrome and let that mindset win? Then my book never would have been published. It’s now a number one international bestseller that is required reading for thousands of special operators deploying all over the world. It’s being used by law enforcement in Philadelphia and California for community policing. And thousands of civilians have benefited from a more clear understanding of what violent extremism and human connection really mean in their lives.

These lessons have become valuable tools. But, if I’d listened to that “imposter” narrative, that could have changed.

We have to lean into what scares us. We have to be willing to do what others won’t.

The next time you feel the imposter syndrome taking hold, all it takes to flip that mindset is asking yourself one powerful question: “Who am I not to do this?”

Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit RooftopLeadership.com