Maybe not as human as ET, but…
The first time I recognized the look was pretty alarming. I’d seen it many times. Even made it myself. But seeing it on the face of someone I looked up to and trusted as a leader rattled me. It was the look of complete uncertainty and doubt.
The man making it was my boss. He was a decorated military veteran who had served 20 years in the USAF, leading countless missions and personnel over the years. Now, he was the project manager of a multi-million dollar facilities maintenance contract, charged with managing over 100 technicians at multiple locations. We were failing.
Recognizing you have a problem is just the first step
The two of us were standing in his office as THE LOOK seared deep into his face. He had just addressed the staff at an all-hands meeting. In it, he laid everything on the line. He was open about our wavering relationship with the client, he was heartfelt about wanting to make the right moves to keep us all employed, and he genuinely asked for feedback about his leadership. It was a strong message…
Now, standing in front of him, I knew he wasn’t as strong as his words. He was human, filled with fear and doubt. I could see his feelings because I had felt them too. Not at the same moment, but definitely with the same level of crippling insecurity and anxiety.
My moment came from saying “Hi”
A few years earlier I had just been hired as a regional Health & Safety manager for a large power company. With responsibility for 16 facilities, I had determined to get out and see all of my locations as quickly as I could. At the time, I thought I needed to know about the buildings. What I actually needed was to understand the people inside them.
At one particular plant, I was snooping around looking high and low when I walked past a control room. There was a man inside tending to his console who half-waived at me as I walked past his window. I gave him the nod as I walked by and noticed he didn’t recognize me (understandable). Then I kept walking and rounded the corner out of his line of site. Then a thought struck: I should introduce myself.
In that moment I felt completely inadequate. I felt like an impostor. I was only 31 years old and had very little experience in utilities. How was I supposed to “manage” anything? Let alone the safety program for 16 facilities?
To the best of my knowledge, that moment was the first time in my life I felt true anxiety. I had to go say hello, but I just knew I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say after that. If anyone had been watching me in that moment, I’m sure I looked like a crazy person as I shuffled one step toward the control room and then retreated. That process repeated several times. I was probably talking to myself too.
Finally, I took a deep breath, and walked to the door. It didn’t kill me.
He was making the look I had felt all those years earlier
My boss, Ben, was experiencing a moment like I had in that control room. I could see the same emotion drenched across his face.
“You asked for honest feed back, right?” I asked.
“Well, I’d say you’ve made enough progress that you’re almost able to speak to others like an actual human. Keep it up and you might actually be one some day.” He stared at me for a second and then cracked a smile. It was the reprieve he’d needed.
The story didn’t have a happy ending
With all the build-up, you might have assumed that Benjamin went on to be one of the most successful project managers that company had ever seen. You’d be wrong though. We had that conversation in his office just a few months before he ended up leaving, and the company subsequently loosing that contract. It wasn’t great. But it wasn’t the end either.
Benjamin went on to become the Mayor of a major metropolitan city as well as a very successful artist (on the side). I can’t speak for him, but I imagine those moments of feeling inadequate don’t cripple him anymore. I know they don’t cripple me.
You may not be ready, you may not know the answers, you may actually be an impostor. But none of that means you’re not great.