Over the last few weeks, the media has been awash with stories about the confession of Mike Cannon-Brookes to ‘imposter syndrome’ at a TEDxSydney event.

If you aren’t familiar with this name, Cannon-Brookes co-founded a software company called Atlassian in 2002 with a friend from university and a $10,000 credit card debt. Last year, he was ranked 17th on the Australian Financial Review’s Rich List with a net worth of over $2.5 billion. Earlier this year, he made headlines for an innocent tweet to fellow billionaire Elon Musk that helped resolve a renewable energy policy impasse between the Commonwealth and South Australian governments.

In his talk, rather than regaling the audience with stories of a high-flying tech executive, he opened up about his fear of being exposed as an imposter. 

“Have you ever felt out of your depth, like a fraud, and just guessed slash bullshitted your way through the situation? Petrified that at any time, someone was going to call you on it? Well I can think of many examples like this.
It’s not a fear of failure, and it’s a not a fear of being unable to do it. It’s more a sensation of getting away with something, a fear of being discovered, that at any time someone is going to figure this out.
I knew well I was an impostor. I knew I was miles out of my depth. But instead of freezing, I tried to learn as much as I could, motivated by my fear of looking like an idiot, and tried to turn that into some sort of force for good."

You can check out the full 15-minute talk here:

We appreciate that the experiences of a tech company executive and those of a leader of an organisation in the community or social services sector can be vastly different. But we think there are three important leadership lessons that can be taken away.

Lesson 1 – Don’t stop learning
Lesson 2 – Focus on the what and the why, leave the how to others
Lesson 3 – Actively seek advice, counsel and support

It can be difficult for leaders to be able to step back from the rigours of day-to-day service delivery, particularly in non-profit organisations where time and resources are always scarce.

Investing time in taking a strategic view across the organisation, with a focus on tackling the challenges that lie ahead, is critical for working towards any organisation’s mission. This requires leaders to ask the right questions of the right people – not necessarily having all the answers.

As Mike Cannon-Brookes reflected:

“The most successful people I know don’t question themselves, but they do heavily question, regularly question, their ideas and their knowledge. They know when the water is way too deep and they’re not afraid to ask for advice. They don’t see that as a bad thing. And they use that advice to hone those ideas, to improve them and to learn.”

We encourage leaders to regularly check the ‘health’ of their organisation across several key areas. We do this by supporting leaders to explore:

  • governance
  • financial sustainability
  • evidence-based design of services and practices
  • outcomes evaluation and impact reporting
  • performance of people, including board members, staff and volunteers
  • collaborations and partnerships
  • engagement with the communities they seek to serve
  • innovation and experimentation with service models.

The Centre for Social Impact (CSI) has recently released The Navigator: Your guide to social purpose leadership with the support of the Macquarie Foundation. It provides leaders in the social purpose sector an idea of ‘what good looks like’ with respect to leadership. We hope that The Navigator becomes a widely used resource that truly enables social sector leaders to reflect on their current practice and map the pathway towards great leadership.

As part of our business development service offering, we support social sector leaders to step back and review their organisation’s strategy and service delivery. This often leads to genuine improvements in how organisations are able to achieve their mission, for example:

  • developing a forward-looking pipeline of future funding opportunities
  • updating practice or implementation frameworks to reflect current evidence
  • exploring opportunities for co-located service provision
  • investing in new revenue streams such as social enterprise.

Get in touch with us at info@beaconstrategies.net if you would like to know more.

Want to continue to receive hints and tips about growing your services and projects? Subscribe to our free business development newsletter for upcoming funding opportunities and other business development hints and tips for small and mid-sized organisations. Head to www.beaconstrategies.net/businessdevelopment to sign up to our newsletter or check out our other business development services.


About Beacon Strategies - we are a mission-based health and social services consultancy committed to supporting organisations to effectively plan, design, implement and evaluate their projects and services.

For more information about services that we can offer your organisation, head to www.beaconstrategies.net or contact us directly on info@beaconstrategies.net.