Insecurity is just the seed of imposter syndrome, planted.

Most people confuse the two because there are such subtle differences between them. But in the same way that money doesn’t change you, it just magnifies who you really are, the same goes for power. The higher you are in the chain of command, the more magnified your behavior becomes, the more distinct the differences between insecurity and imposter syndrome become.

Insecurity usually starts as a few seeds that lay dormant in your mind as you work through imposter syndrome. Maybe you feel like you’re not knowledgeable enough. Maybe you lack the years of experience that other leaders have. Maybe you’re not the most talented leader there is. Or maybe you don’t see yourself as an authority in your field. These are not signs of true insecurity. They’re just internal seeds of thought laying closer on the spectrum to humility. They are admissions to yourself that you have to get better. They are natural feelings that serve as the fuel for excellence, if used wisely. But the problem arises when you allow these seeds to plant themselves in your mind.

A seed has all the ingredients it needs to make a plant, except for soil, water, and sunlight. When your feelings of inadequacy take over your mind, you have given the seeds of imposter syndrome just what they need to grow roots. This is the crossover to insecurity. Not handled properly, your imposter syndrome will grow into a monster to which you’ll divert all of your energy to suppression and concealment. Insecurity becomes a distraction. It takes away your bandwidth for solving the world’s problems and devotes it to trying to solve your own problems. As time goes on, the weeds of insecurity reveal themselves as sensory extremes: brighter colors, louder voices, flashier cars, stronger cologne, and blunt force over logic—all in an elaborate but hopeless attempt to distract from the real problem—your inability to admit to your inadequacies.

If you haven’t done the work to nurture your imposter syndrome to your advantage, what you need to do as a leader is learn how to spot the overgrown weeds of insecurity in yourself. Because by the time others tell you, it may be too late. In addition to sensory extremes, look for the following characteristics and eradicate them immediately:

Comparison: You want to look good rather than do good. How can you lead your people through the dark forest when your torch is constantly pointed towards other people? Constantly thinking about what others have, as well as what you don’t have, renders you incapable of doing your job at the highest possible level.

Obsession with results: You’re more concerned with numbers, data, money, and flashy cars, rather than perfecting the process required to get there. You know you’re not prepared to lead your people through the process, so you’ve gone all-in to hide your inadequacies with thinly veiled attempts to achieve “results.”

Disempowerment: When someone does well, you stay silent. When someone gets the better of you, you ignore them. You see other people’s accomplishments as a threat to your authority. When a subordinate does something better than you, you nitpick and point out their faults rather than building them up and empowering them. 

Unwillingness to listen: This is the hallmark of toxic insecurity. When you don’t listen, especially to those who may be more credible than you in a certain area, it’s because you don’t want to hear the truth, or you think that you must provide the solution in order to solidify your status as a leader. 

When the seeds of imposter syndrome grow into full-blown insecurity, the foundations of leadership inevitably crack. The roots of insecurity—sensory extremes, comparison, obsession, disempowerment, and unwillingness to listen—destroy credibility and eat away at any trust you’ve built. We all have seeds of imposter syndrome, there’s simply no way to avoid it. But keep those seeds safe, in your pocket. Because the moment they touch soil and water, the crossover to insecurity begins, and it will be awfully hard to go back.

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