I have spent two weeks this summer cycling from the north of Vietnam to Hoi Chi Minh City in the south – a long and potentially arduous journey, made more difficult with temperatures exceeding 350C on some days. That said, it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in terms of personal and team resilience, commitment and achievement, all made possible by the incredible leadership of our group leader. I witnessed all aspects of what makes a great leader unfold over the fortnight all of which can be applied to leadership in all we do.
Clarity of Purpose
During our welcome meeting, we were re-introduced to the values of the cycling company and indeed, that of the leader. Why responsible travel was fundamental to our holiday choice, why getting to know the country, it’s culture, history, language was key to our experience and, why enjoyment, fulfilment and achievement was his and our intention. There was absolute clarity in what would be expected from us on a daily basis and an unshakeable belief that all were physically capable of the cycling journey ahead.
The group members were from Europe, US, Australia, New Zealand with an age range of 18-67, all from diverse backgrounds. Some had experienced long bike rides while for others, it was their first; some were focussed on their personal goals while others were ‘just doing it’; some were anxious about their fitness levels while others tackled each day with an awe inspiring confidence. Despite these differences, there was a commitment to a common goal – all were to complete each day with a sense of pride in ourselves and in our team. There was a collaborative spirt fostered by our leader. He created a supportive camaraderie regardless of difference – ‘high fiving’became routine at the end of each day.
Positivity and Reality
Everyone can do this!The leader’s motto regularly heard over breakfast, during our morning briefings, as we mounted our bikes. Always accompanied by the reality of the day – the distance, the terrain, the gradient, the beauty of the landscape, the breaks. We knew exactly what was ahead of us with very few surprises. His experience of the journey fostered a sense of trust and assurance in the team.
Fear and Laughter
Cycling into and out of busy Vietnamese cities was something we just could not imagine – it looked terrifying. The number of possible calamities was too great to count. Our leader’s calm and protective approach soon diminished these fears, so much so, we often found the funny side, screeching hysterically as hundreds of mopeds came towards us. We laughed a lot – even climbing an unrelenting 10km mountain pass, gradient of 8-10%, we laughed. We found humour in extreme situations, each other, with
him and with people we met along the way. The good natured group dynamic enabled us to feel comfortable in laughing at ourselves and each other.
We made it! The sense of achievement was incredible both from an individual and team perspective. As well as organising moments to celebrate, our leader ensured we were able to have opportunities to reflect and share our highs and lows with each other. He was also incredibly keen to hear what he could do better on his future trips. This was one question where we had little to say – he was the best leader we could have possibly hoped for. He made our trip and for that we thank him. As to us……we’re planning to go away together next year – that’s team spirit!
This question posed by Talking Heads in their huge hit single, ‘Once in a Lifetime’, is the same question many highly successful people ask themselves at various stages in their career, more frequently as they move towards or reach the top of their profession. For some the voice gets louder, with a heightened sense of judgement, possible disapproval, leading to feelings of self-doubt, anxiety and an overwhelming dread of ‘being found out’. This is termed ‘the Imposter Syndrome’. Far from being a realistic self-assessment, the syndrome stops people believing in themselves.
“I have written eleven books but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find me out now, I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out’” Maya Angelou
As an executive leadership coach, nearly all my clients have experienced this sense of fraud at some point in their lives. They exhibit an inability to move forward, feel blocked, stuck and, at its worst, become paralysed with fear. They may have sleepless nights, intensified stress, anxiety, depression. There is an immediate sense of relief when they learn that 70% of successful people feel this at some point in their career or at regular intervals throughout their lives. Some have this inner critic voice with them at all times and have learned how to engage with it and have found strategies that help them to function and continue to be successful. Through becoming familiar with the critical voice, they start to use this ‘checking’ system to their advantage. They recognise when the inner critic is there and have internal conversations to reflect on decisions and to develop a sense of security and assurance of their position in the world.
‘Self-doubt undermines the process of finding our gifts and sharing them with the world’ Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
For those who struggle to do this alone, the following are some of the strategies my clients and I have co-created to overcome these moments of self-doubt.
Start with acknowledging it. Recognise the disapproving voices and call them so. Consciously name or even write down the negative thoughts as they occur. “I can’t speak in public, others are far more articulate” or “I can’t work with this client, they are so much more successful than me”. Once you begin to identify the imposter, you will be ready to overcome it.
Practise positive affirmation. Here you develop mantras like “I am meant to be here”. Instead of “why me”, reframe your thinking to “why not me?”. Say these to yourself every time the negative voices crop up. Even though this may feel daunting at first, focused attention and deliberate practice can help rewire our neural pathways.
Focus on your successes and achievements. Remember, you have got to where you are because you have accomplished some amazing things in your career. You deserve to be there. Some of my clients find it easier to focus on the achievements of others in a similar role to them. This helps remind them of their own. Celebrate these as often as you can, spend 5 minutes at the end of every day focussing on the great things about your day. Who were you in those moments. In what way did you help make the moment great.
Acknowledge you are not perfect. Have the courage to lean into your imperfection and accept good enough can still be successful imperfection. Keep to your goal – make progress, not perfection.
Lastly, remember you are not alone. You are in good company. There is a large proportion of successful people out there harbouring the same feelings of ‘why me?’.
With determination and reprogramming, you can overcome your doubt and more easily celebrate your achievements. You will begin to feel liberated and an imposter no more. In the words of Talking Heads, “And you may ask yourself, Am I right? Am I wrong?” You will find the answer.
Just listened to Harriet Harman on Reflections R4.
When asked why she didn’t go for the leader of the Labour Party, she replied “I, like many women, do not consider themselves leadership material. It was always mooted a young gun would get it. Nobody suggested I would “.
She now believes she would have got it. Let’s make all women believe they can take this step.