Lead with the best version of yourself.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: One Foot In Front Of The Other

by James Duncan 

July 1st, 2013. I only remember bits and pieces of it, but make no mistake about it – I was there. You have only to look at the picture of an incredibly nervous, skinny kid sitting in a bus, waiting. For all I knew, I was about to be whisked away to the gates of hell. Might as well have been, anyway.

My dad loves to tell the story of how “green” his son looked on R-Day. Not green as in young, but literally developing a green complexion from the nerves, anxiety, and nausea. Ten years later and I still take it on the chin as Dad lets out a hearty laugh, but deep down, I go back to that moment and realize not all that much has changed.

That day, I was scared. I was afraid to leave behind the beauty of my wonderful childhood. I was afraid that I was not prepared for the challenge in front of me, that I was unworthy of this great opportunity, and that I ought to wave the white flag before the real pain could begin. Far from a quiet refuge, that bus was an echo chamber for the demons in my head. “You don’t belong here. Go home. You will never be good enough.”

Five minutes prior, I had abruptly marked the end of my teenage years with little more than a quick hug and a shaky goodbye to my parents. I held back tears, walked stone-faced out the door and tried to remain composed so as not to show signs of weakness to the cadre eyeing us like vultures. I was crumbling on the inside, but inexplicably, one foot still fell in front of the other. Out the corridor, around the corner, and onto the bus. The demons were shouting so loudly, I didn’t even notice the flash of the camera.

Make no mistake about it – imposter syndrome is a real phenomenon that afflicts leaders at every echelon. The mental trap, also known as perceived fraudulence, is defined as “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills”. Despite achieving success in academic settings, training institutions or operational environments, individuals suffering from imposter syndrome face a daunting gap between their perceived lack of self-worth and the otherwise laudatory comments of those around them. This dichotomy can unfold in front of and within a formation without so much as a hint of visible evidence.

Feelings of professional inadequacy and anxiety are commonplace in the military, and partly by design. Once a leader truly starts to find their confidence in a position of responsibility, it is typically an indication that they will soon be moved to the next job and all the corresponding discomfort and apprehension that comes with change. On their own, the feelings themselves are not the issue in question. The indecision that can – and often does – accompany unchecked doubt is the real harm to our Soldiers.

Ten years removed from R-Day, I am still a leader in the U.S. Army. As a company commander, the level of focus and self-discipline I owe my Soldiers is magnified tenfold. If the call goes out, they will look to me for guidance. That scared, skinny kid in the bus, afflicted by the demons of doubt, will be called upon to put one foot in front of the other yet again.

Self-belief is not defined by the absence of doubt. Despite years of experience and knowledge, the tormented dialogue in our minds is likely to persist. So too will the voices that know when to shriek and when to whisper when we are vulnerable. We must grow accustomed to the invisible hands that scratch and claw to hold us back. As a leader, confidence in oneself is built upon the understanding that these phenomena will be lifelong companions.

These days, I wake up and go to bed with many of the same anxieties as my younger self. My demons may be a bit longer in the tooth, but they still make the same racket. Maybe the only real difference is that time has equipped me with the good sense to tune them out. I have realized that I care too much about what I do and who I serve to act any other way. Until someone proves me otherwise, I will continue to do what got me on and off that old bus – putting one foot in front of the other.

CPT James J. Duncan graduated from the United States Military Academy in 2017 and currently serves as the company commander of the 59th Military Police Company, 759th Military Police Battalion at Fort Carson, Colorado.