Confidence and Courage

February 5, 2021

And at once, I knew
I was not magnificent

— Bon Iver “Holocene”

Several years ago, at the international Organization Development Network Conference, I had a profound experience.  One of the keynote speakers was Peter Block, the consultant and writer of Flawless Consulting.  He was speaking in front of an audience of several thousand people.  He was sharing stories of his consulting work in the field and talking about the changing landscape of organizational life.  The conversation shifted toward the topic of expertise, competence and self-confidence.  

At one point during his long session, I remember him asking us to close our eyes.  Then he asked if anyone ever felt inside like a fake or a fraud when working with a client, if any of us ever felt that we might be exposed as not being as smart as others perceived us to be.  He asked us to raise our hand if we had found ourselves in this situation.  I was sure that my hand would be one of the few raised.  He then asked us to open our eyes and look around the room.  I was shocked to see almost everyone’s hand raised.  This was particularly surprising to me because the room was filled with senior leaders, consultants, professors, OD Practitioners, and HRD professionals. The level of expertise in the room was staggering.  I have always been so engaged and invigorated at these ODN conferences because of the number of big name authors, internationally known consultants, and high level professionals you get to interact and network with.  So many of these individual’s hands were raised.

A buzz reverberated through the convention hall.  Those at my table looked around and you could hear people saying, “I thought it was just me and that everyone else seemed to be so more competent than me.”  Peter Block then introduced the notion of the Imposter Syndrome, an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive us to be.  It has been shown to exist across most professional fields.  

For the next thirty minutes, he had us engage in a discussion with the others at our large round tables.  One after another talked about feeling like they might be exposed for not really being as smart as others perceived them to be.  One person mentioned the phrase, “fake it until you make it.”  They went on to say that even after a dozen years of successful consulting engagements, they still secretly felt that they were still faking it.  There were a lot of heads nodding in agreement.  What is it that makes it difficult to show confidence and trust our own competency?  In a recent podcast with Dr. Brian Primack, the impact of social media was the topic.  We see other’s highlight reels and compare it to our own self-perception.  Social comparison is powerful and it is easy to believe that others have it so much more together than we do.

This common experience of self-doubt is one of the reasons people are so drawn to the work of Brene Brown.  She is an expert on the topic of shame, perfection, and courage.  She speaks of the need to be authentic and to own our power and use our voice.  If you have not read any of her books, podcasts, or Netflix special, you need to check them out.

We can be filled with self-doubt but move forward with courage.  We can learn to trust our own competence and show up authentically.  We can let go of the illusion of perfectionism and in the words of Dewitt Jones, try and be the best for the world rather than the best in the world.  We want to make a difference; we want to have a sense that we matter.  We are purpose driven.  

I remember early in my academic career talking with a friend I had known for years about some topics I was teaching along with a consulting engagement with a large organization.  I shared that I couldn’t believe the company and university were actually paying me because all that I was offering was common sense.  He laughed and said it might be common to you but not to most others.  He said “You’re really smart and good at what you do, why can’t you see that?”  For a long time, I didn’t pay much attention to this comment because I thought he was just being nice.  Over time, I have come to appreciate my competencies and own my voice, while still being aware of my shortcomings, trying to be both authentic and vulnerable.  Walking in courage.  

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive, but you’ll never know –

– Jackson Browne “For a Dancer”

Have a great weekend!

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