The New Executive Director Was a Fraud

by Joan Garry

Ever feel like even though you’ve accomplished a lot; it’s all a farce? That you’re going to be “found out”? I did. Here’s how I overcame Imposter Syndrome!

Do you ever feel like a phony?

I don’t mean in the Holden Caulfield sense of the word.

I mean you have this nagging suspicion that even though you’ve obtained a position of real authority; even though you’ve seemingly accomplished a lot; it’s all a farce. You don’t really know what you’re doing. And everyone is eventually going to figure it out.

You’re a fake. A fraud. An imposter.

For some, this insecurity can become as debilitating as a physical illness.

But guess what? You’re not remotely alone. Practically everyone feels this way. I know I do, at least sometimes. This feeling is so common it has a name. It’s called “Imposter Syndrome.”

Imposter Syndrome became a “thing” in 1978 thanks to two psychologists who described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While these people “are highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”

There are plenty of remarkably successful people who suffer from it. You can read this New York Times article to learn more about it.

It will sound familiar, I guarantee you.

I call it “the man behind the curtain.” The image locked in our brains of Toto pulling the curtain back to reveal the meek man from Kansas who was no wizard at all.

And yet he was.

And so are you.

And as a nonprofit leader, you cannot afford to let Imposter Syndrome detract from fulfilling your mission. Too many are counting on you.

So today I want to tell you my own story of dealing with Imposter Syndrome and offer you some thoughts about how you as a nonprofit leader – board or staff – can beat this “thing.”


It was my first day as an Executive Director. I woke up, put on my Executive Director costume, and flew from New York to Los Angeles.

I spent the day with the Director of Finance, Kerry. The numbers were bad. Really bad. Like “somebody go make some ‘Everything Must Go!’ signs” bad.

Kerry was relieved someone else knew; I wondered if anyone would notice if I slipped out and took the next flight home.

But 200 people would notice.

200 donors, donor prospects, and community leaders were all waiting for me at a cocktail party at a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills. I’d never been to the Hollywood Hills before (note: the roads are very windy).

But that was far from my only “never.”

I had never worked at a nonprofit before, let alone lead one.

I had never asked anybody for money in my life.

Sure, I had great corporate experience. But that’s not really quite the same thing, is it? I felt terrified. I knew there were some nonprofit lifers who assumed (hoped?) I would fail.

I was completely out of my depth. What was I doing here? How quickly would they figure out the mistake they made in hiring me?

Imposter Syndrome. Full force.

So here’s what happened next…

I took a deep breath, walked in, and like a good Irishwoman, headed straight for the bar. A drink settles the nerves, my tee-totaling grandmother once told me. I chatted up the bartender (also like a good Irishwoman) and learned that he was a member of my new staff (Jason would later become my Director of Special Events and now runs his own special events company.) He was kind and encouraging. And funny. In situations like this, “funny” is one of the single most important attributes.

I won’t leave you in suspense. I did a good job that night. We raised some money. Probably covered payroll for a little while, keeping layoffs at bay.

I woke up the next morning and felt a bit better but still wondered when the real Executive Director was going to show up. Imposter Syndrome doesn’t go away in just a day.


There weren’t really blogs in 1997. Google didn’t launch until the following summer. Can you imagine? I couldn’t even google “how to be a great executive director.” There were books for sure from wonderful places like Board Source and publications of all sorts.

But nothing was quite right. None gave the real story. I didn’t want the clinical “correct answers.”

I wanted to hear another leader’s personal story of how s/he turned things around at an organization in financial disarray.

Or the voice of someone who had played many different positions on the nonprofit field and who could advise me on what this thing was called a board and what ‘engaging’ them actually looked like in practice.

Or somebody who could make me laugh about the predicament I was in and serve as a cheerleader for my success.

But these voices didn’t exist. There was nothing even close. Nothing deep and rich and filled with stories that reminded me that I was not alone and that nonprofit leadership is hard and messy but also a gift, a privilege, a joy.

Nothing to help me overcome Imposter Syndrome.


So what did I do? I figured it out myself. I had no other choice.

Here are five things I learned that you could try yourself to help stomp out the “imposter” and own your job.

  • Rely on the strengths and power of those around you. You are so not alone that sometimes you will wish you WERE alone. See all your varying stakeholders and colleagues (yes, colleagues) as a noisy, diverse and passionate village, each with an important role to play in the success of your organization.
  • Keep your eye on who you are serving at all times. Maybe you were a reluctant board chair, maybe you feel like the man behind the curtain. But people are counting on you. It’s all about the passion you feel for the mission and how the lives of those you serve will be better as a result of your work. You may feel like an imposter but that is not how you are seen. And it can’t be how you behave. Too much is riding on you.
  • Recognize the skills and attributes of your staff. Manage them with compassion and accountability in equal measure. Be transparent and authentic with both successes and challenges. Recognize that you are slightly more like a tribe than a staff.
  • See the board as a resource and a partner. Invest time in building a committed and diverse group. Be sure the expectations of board service are crystal clear so that every board member knows what success looks like and can aim for it. Identify the right partnership at the top and cultivate it like the critical relationship it is. Think of yourselves as co-pilots.


A year ago, I realized that the resource I wanted in 1997 was still not out there.

Sure, there are blogs and podcasts – mine and other’s – but I wanted something deeper. More all-encompassing. The “been there done that” voice. Authentic, not clinical. Stories of success and abject failure. An overall guide.

Really, I wanted a book.

So I wrote one. It’s exactly the book I wish I had when I became an Executive Director in 1997.

It’s called Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership: Because Nonprofits Are Messy and it’s available at Amazon, B&N, and at all the usual outlets.

If you like this blog, you’ll love this book. I cover topics like shared leadership, strategic planning, fundraising, managing people, board recruiting, crisis management, and so much more. And I tell a bunch of great – and often funny – stories all along the way. Stories from my own experiences as well as from others I’ve worked with. I write about overcoming Imposter Syndrome too.

You’ll learn a ton.

You can order the book here:

And if you’d first like to read a free chapter to see if the book is for you, click here.

And remember… just like the Wizard of Oz, you’ve got this! Don’t let anyone – and especially not yourself – tell you otherwise!

14 thoughts on “The New Executive Director Was a Fraud”

  1. I think another important point here is that the Imposter Syndrome relates at least in part to your own self-confidence. I know when I am feeling good about myself and my skills and abilities, I am better at my job.

  2. “I couldn’t even Google How To Be A Good Executive Director:!! Too funny. This is something I coach my EDs and CEOs on all the time. So important! Thank you, Joan. Looking forward to reading the book.

  3. Haha! I wish I read this article 2 years ago… This article resonated with me even though I have been an ED for two whole years.

  4. I learned, as you point out, that joy and humor help stomp out the “imposter”…”AND, my copy of your book shipped today!!! Really looking forward to reading it.

  5. oh, yes – this is a biggy. I still have moments where I’m sure the sign will go on over my head: IMPOSTER! FAKE. thanks for this.

  6. Joan, in 2002 I took a position as an Executive Director, after having been a marketing consultant for medical device companies. I had: 1) never worked in the nonprofit field, 2) never lived in the state I was now working in, 3) hadn’t had a boss in 18 years, 4) never worked on a college campus. Now I had moved 600 miles from family to be an ED for an organization on a college campus, and had a board to report to — as well as the Jewish Federation, the University, the national organization of which we were an affiliate, and the parents of the students who called about their kids vs. the university. Oh, and the building’s kitchen grease trap backed up my first week on the job, and half the staff didn’t want me there.
    I TOTALLY get the imposter syndrome! Thanks for pointing it out so eloquently.

Leave a Comment