The Imposter Syndrome in Progressive Leaders
Why liberals feel and fear fraudulence
Posted Nov 19, 2015
I once coached the leader of a progressive political organization about his tendency to micromanage everyone around him to the point that he procrastinated in developing a vision for his organization and in making bigger decisions about strategy. He admitted that he fell victim to “paralysis by analysis,” often so worried that some detail would escape his notice that he put everyone around him under a microscope. He felt inordinately responsible for everything and everyone and worried that a mistake, however small, would reveal the shameful truth that he didn’t belong in his leadership position and had somehow risen to it illegitimately. “They’ll find out that I don’t belong in this role, like I snuck into a club that wouldn’t ordinarily admit people like me,” he said. His dysfunctional management style ultimately stemmed from a fear of fraudulence.
Another leader I treated in psychotherapy admitted that she felt inhibited about reaching out to power players in her state to form strategic alliances because she secretly (and incorrectly) believed that she didn’t belong in the same room as these movers and shakers. She thus sacrificed an opportunity to multiply and magnify her own power and that of her organization. These other people with money and power “were like a different species,” she said, and she didn’t “speak their language.”
Both of these leaders suffered from what is called the Imposter Syndrome, a set of beliefs--often unconscious and usually stemming from feelings of guilt--that one doesn’t deserve success, power, and/or authority. Afflicted with this syndrome, people fear the humiliation of being exposed or “found out” as a fraud. The mind, operating as it often does in irrational but self-protective ways, then seeks to downplay success, minimize accomplishments, and keep one’s profile small and non-threatening.
Such “solutions” are disastrous for organizations that are already under attack from political enemies, the courts, and conservative media. These organizations need leaders not afraid of playing hardball and playing to win.
The Imposter Syndrome is ubiquitous in the work world, especially among women, but I have found it to have a special salience in the world of progressive politics. The reason for this is that liberals and progressives see themselves as fighting for the underdog, for those under the greedy and self-serving thumbs of people with power and status. Leaders on the Left find themselves overly identified with the victims they seek to represent and protect and, as a result, feel a special discomfort—guilt, it turns out--viewing themselves as privileged and powerful, even if, objectively, they are just that. They feel more at ease in the trenches with the underdog, playing defense, defending David from Goliath than to face the feelings of disloyalty and betrayal they imagine they’d experience if they were to act like Goliaths themselves.
But people who are powerless want and need to be part of a movement led by people who are powerful and who aren’t afraid to act like it. When progressive leaders are afraid to act in bold and audacious ways, to take risks, and to ruthlessly pursue power, their caution and guilt radiate out and enfeeble their organizations.
Consider this hypothetical situation: There are approximately 2.5 million workers in California--16% of the workforce—who are in a union. Union members vote more often than non-union members and usually vote Democratic. Nevertheless, there are many thousands who are politically disaffected and disconnected from their leadership. Imagine if union leaders promoted a vision that was bold and exciting enough to attract the many thousands of cynics and bystanders in their ranks, and developed meaningful relationships with their members such that members felt excited about being part of a grand movement that cared about them and was hell-bent on building enough power to make sure that no one could mess with their interests any more. If 80 or 90% of union members voted and each one brought along 3 or 4 others—not an unreasonable possibility—then unions would become nothing less than a permanent progressive majority in California. They would begin with almost 10 million votes “in the bank.” And, thus, in alliances with other progressive organizations similarly motivated, not a single bit of legislation could be passed that wasn’t first vetted by these unions, the leaders of which would become powerful conduits for the needs and interests of hitherto powerless individual members. To borrow a metaphor from pocket billiards, progressives could “run the table.” But this scenario is made impossible by the fears of many progressive leaders of embracing and wielding their own authority and power because of the self-defeating guilty belief that they’re not supposed to be winners but only always virtuous underdogs.
Progressive leaders have to learn to make the acquisition and exercise of power their top priority. They have to learn to feel comfortable doing so. They have to act like they deserve to be powerful even if they secretly doubt it. Bigger is better when it comes to politics and leaders on the Left have to get over their need to act small and pretend that they are less than they really are. Spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson put it best when she said: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?'…Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.”
Michael Bader, DMH is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. His recent books include Fear of Winning: A Psychologist Explores the Imposter Syndrome in Progressive Leaders and Explains How to Overcome It and More Than Bread and Butter: A Psychologist Speaks to Progressives About What People Really Need in Order to Win and Change the World. His other writings can be found on his website, www.michaelbader.com