Nokukhanya Mchunu, Program Officer at Social Change Assistance Trust, attended the first ever American Express Leadership Academy for women leaders in Southern Africa. In her blog, Nokukhanya shares her learnings from the Academy with us; reflecting on how she learnt to manage the challenges of impostor syndrome and the power of representation in leadership.

My leadership role sits predominantly in the community development space, and more specifically rural communities dealing with social justice issues through paralegal work and other relevant community based programmes. Before attending the Southern African American Express Leadership Academy my challenges were very much around influence; how I come into and hold a space in my work, together with ensuring that I’m impactful.

Having started a new position in a new organization, prior to the Academy, I didn’t know how much influence I had. This was coupled with having to learn about my new job, understanding not only my job scope but also the organization and the sector we operate in, as well as trying to ensure that I’m impactful in my role. As a result, I always came from a position of thinking that I didn’t have the authority to say much or be influential as I’m still very new.

I’ve never really seen myself as a leader, especially in my occupational sphere. However, being part of the Academy opened me up to the fact that, wherever we are, we are all leaders. We don’t have to be wearing the authority hat or have the correct title (as perceived by the world). In whatever work you do, you are a leader.

My aspirations have always been, to share myself, my thoughts and ideas unashamedly and sit comfortably in the space of uncertainty.

My experience of the American Express Leadership Academy was amazing. I enjoyed everything about the immersion week and appreciated the opportunity to connect with other women doing the same to similar work as me, however the time spent with our coaches was my most precious experience. It demanded that I tap into myself much more deeply, and work through what hindered me from perceiving myself as a leader. I found the coaching sessions to be my most powerful moments during the Academy because - together with hearing from the various speakers that Common Purpose invited to address us - they were leaders who “looked” like me and were thriving in their various spheres of leadership. I realised that some of the reasons I’d constantly held back from sharing my thoughts and ideas authentically stem from impostor syndrome. So having guests whom I felt represented through was a very powerful and mind shifting moment. It reassured me that I belong and I am enough. 

I have subsequently become more reflective of myself and my skills both on a personal level and work wise. This has offered me an opportunity to present myself more confidently in the best way possible and to ensure that I’m impactful in what I do. I’m constantly seeking new ways and means of self-improvement and development to ensure I stay on top of my game. The feeling of impostor syndrome is still a work in progress for me, however it’s not a blind spot of mine anymore.

Whenever I’m in doubt or I feel the impostor syndrome creeping in, I always, refer back to my coaching sessions, and offer myself the chance to choose courage over comfort and fear. My learning from the academy has helped me become a more effective leader by constantly pushing myself to participate, share ideas, continue asking curious questions, and cease being comfortable with the status quo. It is a continuous journey as there are moments when one doesn’t necessarily get a favourable response or favourable environment, however, for me, it’s about walking out of spaces knowing that I brought my full self, which has become more fulfilling. This has also helped with being fully present in spaces of conversation and in meetings, which were the spaces where I’d feel the impostor syndrome the most.