5 Fears of Mid-Level Leaders — Fear of Exposure

Dec 20, 2023. By Lori Brewer Collins

American Eagle Soaring by Jake Brewer

“Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you: I’m successful. But am I really adding enough value to the organization? I think about the teams that I’m responsible for—the vast array of output and all that they are capable of, and my job is somehow to hold it all together. If I weren’t here, what difference would it make? As I do my own personal, internal inventory I’m coming up short. When I honestly look at my life, I see all the flaws and mistakes. People have this image of who I am, but I see myself so differently. If they knew all the ways I fail, I wonder if they would think putting me in this position was a mistake.”


What if they find out?

Upwardly mobile leaders like Robert are sandwiched between their direct reports and upper management. These mid-level managers are asking themselves tough personal questions:

  • Where am I in life?
  • How did I get here?
  • What is my purpose now?

They’re confronted by the fact that their life has been defined by their work and what they know. And, because they feel like imposters, they are continually questioning their standing in the world.

Leaders grappling with Imposter Syndrome fear they will be found out. They feel overstressed, unfulfilled and, sometimes, over-privileged by their positions, which raises many issues about insecurity and uncertainty. They are nervous, especially when asked to do new things, in part because they feel as if they are being pushed to the edge of their competence. Stepping off that cliff and jumping into an area of their incompetence puts their identity at risk. Living “on the edge” like this, they are trapped in a never-ending question about how much risk they should take.

What’s at Risk?

These leaders face the risk of letting people down and “discovering” that they’ve taken the wrong career path or aren’t as competent as people think they are. Some of these fears are irrational, but they’re real and legitimate to the leaders experiencing them.

Key Issues & Challenges

  • Taking time to reflect
  • Responding to the inner dialogue
  • Managing a complex life
  • Containing the many uncertainties
  • Pretending to be someone you’re not.

Antidotes to the Fear of Exposure

1. Change your mind for the better.

Borrow a few steps from Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology. Go through the following logical sequence of thoughts to determine whether your fears are grounded—or not. (These steps, derived from Seligman’s ABCDE method, are particularly helpful when you’re lying awake at 3 in the morning.)

A: ADVERSITY – Think about your challenging situation. Identify the facts: the who, what, when, and where.

B: BELIEFS – Note what was running through your mind during this adversity. Don’t censor yourself

C: CONSEQUENCES – Identify the consequences of those beliefs: all the emotions you felt and all your reactions. Reflect on whether those consequences make sense, given your beliefs.

D: DISPUTE – Test the accuracy of those beliefs. Come up with one piece of evidence to prove their inaccuracy. Generate a more optimistic alternative belief. Look at the adversity from a different perspective.

E: ENERGY – Consider how this alternative belief or perspective shifts your energy, your mood, and your behavior. Look at the situation again. What solutions do you see that you didn’t before?

2. Share your knowledge.

If exposure is the fear you’re facing, find people you can teach or mentor to help you connect or reconnect with your deeper sense of Self. It’s true that leaders who mentor can gain as much from the relationship as the mentees. You enter the relationship as the teacher, yet you also become a student. It’s a mutual learning situation that can help you build what essentially is a “new room” in your consciousness—a place where you can be both teacher and student, strong and soft, definitive and flexible.

Focus more on opportunities to share your wisdom and experience, instead of specific technical skills. This can also illuminate legitimate ways you’re positively affecting individuals and teams within your organization.

3. Gain perspective.

Begin to look at yourself in the broader context of your role. Undertake an honest assessment of your self, your work, and the context in which you must do it. If you find it difficult to do this objectively (many do), consider working closely with a coach. A coaching relationship can provide a safe place to look at the bigger picture, lower your guard, have conversations about your self-doubt and vulnerabilities, and find the treasure that lies within.

Photo Credit: American Eagle Soaring by Jake Brewer

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