Dare to Lead: How Administrators Can Overcome Imposter Syndrome

By Shelley Arakawa

The summer before my senior year in high school, I went on a college tour that included a stop in Washington. Knowing I had dreams of becoming a lawyer and breaking down barriers like Thurgood Marshall did, my father took me to visit the U.S. Supreme Court. As we sat listening to the court in session, I pointed toward the bench, leaned over to my dad, and whispered, “How do I become one of those?” My father beamed with pride, and to this day, I don’t think he realized that I was pointing to the clerks sitting behind the honorable justices. There was only one woman in a black robe on the bench, and she did not look at all like me, a Japanese-American.

As Marian Wright Edelman once said, “It’s hard to be what you can’t see.” However, I did see myself in the folks in the back who were rummaging through papers and frantically taking notes. To be one of them someday was a reasonable, attainable goal. 

Leadership opportunities in higher education today are plentiful. Yet I suspect there are still many people in academe who stare at those positions and think — much like I did years ago — that they probably shouldn’t set their sights so high. Plenty of advice has been offered on these pages to help academics cope with the faculty version of “impostor syndrome,” but not much for folks on the management side of the house who doubt their own potential as leaders.

Over the last few years, I have led a series of workshops for the College Board’s Enrollment Leadership Academy where, as part of a larger discussion on career paths, people have shared their thoughts on how to overcome impostor syndrome in a senior administrative role. I’m sharing their comments and experiences here to provide insight to prospective candidates: How might you shift your thinking and contemplate competing for senior-level positions during a time when higher education is very much in need of transformational leadership?

Realize that it’s not just a “syndrome.”

Most discussions of impostor syndrome focus on the individual — that is, on feeling like you are lacking in the qualities and qualifications articulated in a job posting. Yet the root of those inadequacies might not entirely rest in any true deficiencies in a candidate’s profile.

For women, people of color, and other marginalized candidates, feelings of impostor syndrome are “really responses to sexist and racist structures,” said Anne De Luca, PhD, associate dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College, who credited Tricia Hersey and other Black feminist authors for informing her thinking on this. “These structures are designed to keep those outside the majority from stepping into their power, feeling confident, and being aligned with others. These structures leave us questioning our individual talents and worth rather than questioning the systems that exclude those outside the majority.”

In applying for leadership positions, it’s important to carefully reflect on how your experiences and skills may (or may not) align with an institution’s expectations and opportunities for leadership. However, you should also assess the institution’s capacity to support you to be successful on the job and identify campus practices, procedures, and long-standing structures that might pose significant barriers. 

The best way to make that assessment: Talk with people at the prospective campus. Ask pointed questions to get at whether the place will help you be successful on the job: How does the institution set and execute strategic goals? How are budgets allocated? When cutbacks have to be made, how are they decided and implemented? What resources will be available to you to achieve the goals and support your professional development? Who serves in leadership roles for the campus and on key committees? And how diverse is that mix of people?

Speak from your strengths. 

Some articles I’ve read about impostor syndrome suggest a career strategy of “fake it until you make it.” But that only reinforces the existing structures that have perpetuated false constructs of merit.

Derek Kindle, vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, offered another approach: “Be authentic throughout your interviews, negotiations, and on-boarding. Although there are elements of showcasing your skills, experiences, and talents, it should come from a place of authenticity — knowing that you want and need those around you to accept and respect all of who you are and what you bring, and vice versa.”

When applying for positions, people with impostor syndrome tend to focus on the things they fear are missing from their portfolio: what they don’t know and haven’t yet experienced. Tammie Durham Luis, assistant vice provost for enrollment management and executive director of financial aid at the University of Michigan, suggested “highlighting the information you do know and your willingness and interest to leverage that knowledge to continue to develop professionally.”

Take the time to personally inventory your accomplishments and job knowledge “as a mental exercise,” she said, to remind yourself of what you’ve achieved. “Time goes by quickly,” she added, “and we condense our responsibilities on résumés, which sometimes leads to forgetting things we have done. It is also important to let an institution know that you know the resources to obtain any information you need to accomplish the job.”

Leverage your network.

People tend to be their own worst critics. Remember, you do have cheerleaders in your corner — colleagues who understand and can even champion your value. Rely on them to help craft a narrative of your success so that others can see it, too. 

As a job applicant you may not want to broadcast the fact that you’re looking for a new role and seeking a particular position. Approach a few close, trusted confidants to help you assess your experiences and think through how they may be relevant to the opportunity at hand. 

It is important to continue to cultivate your network for this very purpose.

“It is far too easy to let increasing responsibilities get you more drawn into just your campus versus keeping an eye toward the big picture of both your professional network and your collective work and challenges,” said Jim Rawlins, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at the University of California at San Diego. “It could be that the colleague you get to know well ends up serving as a reference someday or recommending you for a position. Or maybe you meet someone and decide that person could be a great next boss. At the very least, maintaining and utilizing one’s network is really about continually honing one’s craft and keeping each other aware of possibilities.”

Take your fear and turn it into action.

Impostor syndrome can be debilitating but it can also be a source of motivation. “I have come to see my impostor syndrome as an asset,” said Yvonne Berumen, vice president of admission and financial aid at Pitzer College, “because it’s allowed me to provide a different perspective in our leadership meetings. I see it as something similar to growth mindset over deficit theory — it’s all about perspective!”

You may doubt yourself because of your background, education, or experiences. But she said: “It’s our unique viewpoint, resilience, hard work, and dedication that has helped us to surpass expectations. And it’s that firsthand experience that helps us change an institution from the inside and remove obstacles for the next generation (students and colleagues). In some cases, we may be the only voice. But if we persist, we can strategically add other voices and create partnerships that make lasting change.”

As a candidate, you should not shy away from the values that drive you as a leader and the personal narrative that makes you unique. Higher education is changing and institutions need fresh ideas to evolve in order to survive. Why not offer a voice that has traditionally been muted to help spark a different way of thinking or an alternate approach on a pressing issue?

“You might be just the voice that’s missing,” said Rawlins of UC-San Diego, “and your strong signals will let people know what they’re getting. It may eventually help someone else around a table or screen speak up with the same thought” — one they might not have shared “before they knew they had an ally.”

Accept that the feeling may never fully go away.

Even when a person actually gets the job, insecurities will continue to seep in. Jarrid Whitney, assistant vice president for student affairs, enrollment, and career services at California Institute of Technology, is a member of the Six Nations Cayuga tribe and was the first person in his family to attend a four-year university. He recalls feeling impostor syndrome for the first time when he entered college and didn’t know what AP tests were because his high school hadn’t offered them.

“Even today,” he said, “after earning two different Ivy League degrees and nearly 30 years of professional experience working at some of the most selective institutions in the country, I still have those same feelings of impostor syndrome whenever I walk into a room, especially one filled with faculty or trustees. And it’s not about confidence in my work or abilities, but an awareness that I, and many other Native American people, are simply not as represented in educational leadership spaces. I just have to keep reminding myself that I do belong; I do deserve to be here; and my voice matters.”

You will better manage the many facets of leadership if you retain a certain degree of humility and recognize that you don’t, and can’t, know everything. Authentic and strategic leaders focus less on their own personal deficiencies and rely more on the subject-matter experts on their team, thereby building the confidence of those staff members and valuing their contributions.

Or as Kindle of UW-Madison put it: “Respect and listen to the experts on your team and in the room. … Sometimes the role of the leader is to be an advocate and not necessarily an expert in every subject matter.”

In the arena.

Theodore Roosevelt is my favorite president, and as I reflect on the notion of impostor syndrome, I’m inspired by one of his famous quotes:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

The global pandemic, racial reckoning, and unrelenting questioning of the value proposition of higher education make this a new world for colleges and universities. It is a challenge like none we have seen before, and the call for new leadership has never been louder. While there may be a number of reasons why someone may not want to pursue a leadership role in higher education at this time — particularly in enrollment management — impostor syndrome should not be one of them.

Higher education is at an inflection point. If you have counted yourself out of consideration for a leadership role, I hope some of this advice will help you to meet the moment, envision yourself in the arena, and dare to lead.

This article was originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Permission to reprint has been granted.