Belonging, Authenticity, Vulnerability: Unlocking your Potential

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This is a reflection article by Kate Yaxley for the Propel Her – Defence Women’s Leadership Series.

Like many Grounded Curiosity readers, I have really enjoyed Lyndsay and Shamsa’s Propel Her series. The insights into mentoring, personal branding, intrapreneurship and networking reflected all the ingredients I have used as I’ve progressed through my own career. These skills propelled me into my current role as the Visiting Military Fellow at UNSW Canberra and being rewarded the 2021 Williams Foundation Scholarship to complete my PhD research in autonomous systems and artificial intelligence. 

The Propel Her piece I found most empowering was ‘Imposter Syndrome: Feel it, name it, propel forward anyway’ which offered an action plan for when those inevitable thoughts of self-doubt and fraudulence arise as you progress along your unique career path. Throughout my career I have faced many of these moments that have challenged my confidence and authenticity, but have ultimately led me to my current successes. 

As Defence women, it’s what we do. We turn up, wear a mask, look the part, and go home to reveal our vulnerability in a place we feel safe. While we may keep propelling forward with unwavering motivation as ADF members, what is the catalyst of these feelings of imposter syndrome and how much does it hold us back from reaching our full, unhindered potential? I read through the helpful resources Lyndsay and Shamsa included in their article, and reflected on how my personal strategies managed these feelings of self-doubt, which I will discuss in the hope that they propel your own career as well:


A common theme running through many articles on imposter syndrome is that it is often associated with the feeling of not belonging. When leaders commit to improving diversity, the workplace is rewarded with more creative problem solving, better overall performance and increased employee happiness. Putting value and importance on the feeling of belonging in an organisation or workplace contributes to individual confidence. In areas where we may not feel as though we belong, our confidence and self-belief can be compromised. 

The 2020 International Women’s Day #EachforEqual initiative is an example of a strategy that seeks to foster diversity and challenge the status quo in environments where it is difficult to create a sense of belonging. At times I have felt lower confidence aligned with a lack of belonging; being the only female technician, the only female engineer or the only military member in the workplace. And while the Air Force has its own great initiatives to improve diversity, my personal strategy is to build confidence through cultivating gratitude. Seeing the positives around me, and most importantly, the ones created by me, helps me build my sense of belonging regardless of the environment. Thanking yourself for your hard work, or thanking others for their contributions assists you to build a positive outlook and resilient emotional response to stress.


When our actions are congruent with our beliefs and desires, we are being authentic. Because not every workplace or work relationship aligns naturally to our personal values, we can be tempted to trade our authenticity to seek belonging, resulting in negative feelings of discomfort and guilt. Sound familiar? Acting authentic requires an awareness of ‘self’, unbiased actions, congruent behaviours, and an ability to both demonstrate and receive trust. All of these ingredients aid us in becoming effective leaders, so take some time to invest in these points of development. Practicing self, peer, or mentor reflection can help us grow our Johari window, in ‘what we don’t know that we don’t know’ about ourselves. Oftentimes, demonstrating and developing authenticity requires bravery, which is why I will now touch on vulnerability.


Listening to Susan David’s TED Talk reiterates to me the significance of vulnerability, and our struggle in pursuit of belonging and authenticity. Are we focusing so much on developing false resilience that we forget to display emotion? We demonstrate vulnerability every day, but we are likely not aware of it. The act of trusting someone is to open yourself to a vulnerability. To stop allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, or acknowledge emotion, requires a mask. I’m not advocating for sharing all of your deepest secrets with your peers or mentors, but a good leader and teammate is brave enough to share appropriately

My most successful interactions with others have included sharing truths and displaying my authentic self. The moments I have comprised my true self in an attempt to ‘fit in’ have damaged relationships and caused a level of cognitive dissonance. I am a woman and an airminded engineering nerd who values and embodies gender equality with a hope to inspire passion within others. The journey to understanding yourself, building your personal brand, developing your leadership qualities, and how to propel through moments of self-doubt takes commitment. The social aspect of human interaction is key to understanding how we can interact with evolving levels of autonomy. While this piece details my interest in unpacking imposter syndrome, I believe that authentic interactions will support the development of successful autonomous capability.

As highlighted by Lyndsay and Shamsa, imposter syndrome is a feeling commonly felt by both men and women, and is often prevalent in environments where individuals are encouraged to reach their full potential. I am grateful for belonging to an organisation that both values and embodies excellence, as I am encouraged to reach the next big milestone, goal, or peak. In propelling your own career, tackling new challenges, and managing self-doubt, adding tools to support your own sense of belonging, authenticity, and vulnerability can help.

Handy Resources

About the Author

Kate Yaxley is a parent of two, and an Air Force Electrical Engineering Officer. Completing her Electrical Engineering degree inspired a journey of lifelong learning to understand the implications and possibilities for capability beyond the physical. Kate is passionate about engineering and improving diversity for creative problem solving. Twitter: @K8Yaxley