Coaching Magazine

Coach or Imposter? Trusting the Process of Coaching

Coach or Imposter? Trusting the Process of Coaching


“Who am I?” Three simple words you have probably said in some form or fashion. I know I have. Who am I to speak to that group? Who am I to coach that CEO? Who am I to write this article? Who am I to—well—you fill in the blank.

The feelings of being underprepared, ill-equipped, or undeserving are familiar to most coaches and leaders. These feelings come with a variety of names such as ‘imposter syndrome,’ ‘imposter phenomenon,’ and ‘imposter feelings.’

Let me just come out and say it: I hate the term ‘imposter syndrome.’

The word ‘syndrome’ conveys some sort of psychological pathology. It communicates that there is something flawed or abnormal with the person simply because they have fear or trepidation related to their next steps. For the record, there is no such thing as ‘imposter syndrome.’ American Psychological Associations’ Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM5)

It is a social construct, not a medical one.

Regardless of what you call it, what we do with that fear is what matters. Will we let it paralyze us or propel us?

Most coaches will say that imposter feelings are a common theme among their clients. We use the widely accepted techniques of coaching to help our clients productively use their imposter feelings.

However, what happens when the coach is struggling with imposter feelings? I must admit, I felt some intimidation when I was invited to coach the CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium. I had never worked with a zoo before. I knew very little about the management structures or systems of a zoo. I felt similar imposter feelings during a recent business trip to Africa where I coached some business and ministry leaders in Uganda and Kenya. I had never been a leader in their context or culture. Who was I to offer them help?

Brent with Dr. Jeremy Goodman, President and CEO of Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium

Plenty has been written about how to help clients overcome these imposter feelings, including in Coaching Magazine. Tactics such as recognizing self-doubt and embracing vulnerability or asking clarifying questions certainly can be used to help coaches too.

There is a tactic though—unique to coaches—that is not a common solution to imposter feelings: trusting the process. The process of coaching in and of itself is one of the keys to unlocking the grip of self-doubt.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who you are, it matters who the client is. It matters that you listen attentively, question openly, and encourage abundantly during your coaching session. That is the amazing and beautiful thing about coaching: the process just works when you let it.

But you have to get out of the way, let go of the pressure, and trust that the client has what they need to grow, adapt, and excel.

Brent in Nairobi with coaches and colleagues from the Leadership Connection – Kenya

That’s what I did in Pittsburgh, in Uganda, and in Kenya. All three coaching engagements were smashing successes. I didn’t overcompensate by telling everyone what I knew. I did not work to solve their problem. Instead I worked to be their mirror, their thought partner, and their encourager.

When you trust the process and trust the client enough to let go of your nerves, great things will happen and imposter feelings will be a momentary bump in the road.

Brent A. Hafele, M.A., ACC is a coach to executives and president of Vibrancy Unlocked. In his coaching, he leverages his over 20 years of experience in the number one or number two roles in both business and nonprofit organizations.

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