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Are You an Authentic Leader or an Imposter? Peeling off the Veneer

Jim Taggart

Jim Taggart joins us again this week to share his thoughts on leadership with our readers.  This post originally appeared on Jim's blog 'Changing Winds', and appears here in its entirety.

Jim is a leading thinker on the topics of leadership and organizational development. You can visit his website at and read his e-book, 'Becoming a Holistic Leader'.

- Alcide



I remember back in July 1998 being in the first of two five-week residencies in gorgeous Victoria, British Columbia. Being from the East Coast of Canada, admittedly possessing spectacular scenery in its own right, the West coast of my country is indeed inspiring.

I was 43 at the time, and had been working in leadership and change management for five years. I entered the Master’s leadership program at Royal Roads University because I believed that I needed to deepen my understanding of the leadership field. I had worked for many years as an economist and manager in labor market analysis, with two economics degrees. But after five years of doing applied work in leadership and change management and reading like a fiend I felt like an imposter. So back to school while helping raise four kids.

I still vividly recall one of the seminars during my first residency, during which one of our faculty talked about the imposter syndrome.Fake smile-180x269 His comment smacked me between the eyes. I hadn’t realized to that point that was the underlying issue that was bothering me. Sure, 10 years previously I had entered management as a neophyte manager, only to fall on my face enough times; but I learned–and how. I was catapulted from a subject matter expert who had done plenty of client relationship management and partnering to the dude in charge of a team of economists and support staff. Now came the hard stuff.

Have you, or anyone you know, been catapulted into a managerial position, or worse an executive position without any solid supervisory experience? Feel a little stressed?

The rising tide of we Baby Boomers who are increasingly heading for the exits will create a monumental headache for those leading organizations as corporate memory evaporates and as millions of person-years (ah, a bureaucratic term I love) is gone forever. Yeah, yeah, Gens X and Y can’t wait for us to disappear for them to take control. I would never argue that the two succeeding generations to the Baby Boom do not have a lot to offer organizations. Their time has come. However, I also don’t subscribe to the notion that a then-young Gen Xer said to me at work several years ago: that for every three Baby Boomers who retire only one Gen X will be needed for replacement. If that’s not arrogance and naiveté, then I’m Pee-Wee Herman in disguise.

In the haste to rid organizations of a generation that has admittedly become a pain in the ass because of its decades-long imposed culture (I recently watched two dudes from the former Grateful Dead perform at the Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest), please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater (sorry for the well-beaten metaphor).

When I talk about authentic leadership, I’m not referring to the individual who is appointed to an executive position, only then to start barking out orders. It’s essential to understand that management is an appointment; leadership is earned through followership. You can rearrange the deck chairs as often as you like, lay-off people, promote people, etc. But NO ONE will follow you unless they see you as their leader. Another way of expressing this is that you can manage through compliance, or lead through commitment. Which would you prefer?

People in managerial positions sometimes confuse confidence with integrity. I’ve seen enough cases of those in managerial positions who believe that because they exude confidence (which may actually be insecurity) that staff should follow them. Wrong! When your staff see that your words are consistently aligned with your daily actions, then they will begin to trust you and follow you. This is where integrity enters the picture–and where you as a leader will move to a higher level of being present among your followers.

It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare. 
- Mark Twain



Jim Taggart has been a student of leadership for 20 years, devoting over a decade to applied work in leadership development, organizational learning, and team building. Jim is a recognized thought leader, resulting from his extensive work on leadership, teamwork and organizational cultural change, as well as initiating and leading many change management projects.


He is also an economist, and has conducted research on labor market, competitiveness and innovation issues. Of special interest is understanding the interface between competitive global pressures and how leadership and management are practiced at the organization level. He holds Masters in economics and leadership and organizational learning.

Jim and his wife, Sue, have four adult children and two granddaughters. They live in Ottawa, Canada.


As a manager, I never felt like an imposter.  I certainly had situations that caused me to lose sleep when my team was at odds with our processes or at odds with each other.  Any lack of confidence or frustration came as a result of being in the middle, working to achieve corporate commitments while at the same time working to engage the team that I needed to help me achieve the strategic goals. Like you, I decided I needed to know more, particularly about systems and their impact on human behaviour. As a result of my M.A. work, gratefully, I no longer think in terms of ineffective individuals but rather ineffective systems and processes. Mostly, given half a chance, managers and others do the very best they can unless they have become completely disengaged or are suffering burn-out from unreasonable demands in the work environment.

By Diane Thompson on 2010/09/21

Thanks for sharing your experiences and observations.

By Jim Taggart on 2010/09/21

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Posted by Jim Taggart
Posted on September 17, 2010

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Categories: leadership, learning, lessons learned