Most Successful Leaders Are Frauds – True or False?

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What keeps successful leaders up at night?

If you are not familiar with Imposter Syndrome, it is because it is one of the best kept secrets in the workplace, present at all levels from jobseeker to CEO.  

It is what keeps most leaders up at night, as they subconsciously wait for that dreaded phone call that could signal their downfall. It is that feeling of not deserving our achievements.

We put our successes down to luck or to fraud, and we live in fear of getting exposed as an imposter.

“She explained that many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are- impostors with limited skills or abilities.” – Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

Research shows that this feeling of being a fraud is more common in women and progressively gets worse the higher up the ladder people rise.  In my experience, it is as common in men as it is in women.  The apparent difference may be as a result of women being more vocal about the experience and men being less likely to openly talk about it.

Why Successful Leaders?

High achievers and successful leaders are usually very aware of their limitations as they focus on progression and further success, which usually involves a level of competition with other high achievers.  One of the downsides of being in the company of other high achievers is that you can’t help but compare yourself to others, a great way to feed the imposter syndrome!

In interviews with several senior executives who have achieved tremendous success in their fields, it is clear that the resultant anxiety stops people from celebrating their successes and makes sufferers so risk averse that if unexplored, can be the difference between a high-flier who reaches  the glass ceiling and one who smashes through it.

I’m Not Familiar With Imposter Syndrome

Having spent several years working within the HR department of a number of large multinational financial services companies, I find it surprising in hindsight that this common anxiety was hardly ever voiced, ironically as a result of fear of being exposed as a fraud.

Nowadays, it very often comes up in our Leadership Coaching programmes where participants trust that they are in a safe environment where judgement is reserved.  Leaders admit that it is a common cause of anxiety for them and where unexplored, can be a hindrance to courageous decisions that are necessary to get their businesses to the next level.  A high-profile female banker recently commented during a coaching session that “Now, that I have verbalised it, I realise just how ridiculous and absurd it all sounds! Of course, I can successfully ….”.

Equally, in our Team Dynamics Coaching sessions where we promote deep democracy and create safe environments where marginalised voices can be heard, participants often comment that they have held back from speaking up and contributing in the past as a result of what they now identify as the imposter syndrome.

Five Ways to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

  1. Celebrate Your Successes: Learn to blow your own trumpet. Give yourself credit for your successes and achievements. Accept compliments and recognition for a job well done. Don’t brush them aside and attribute your achievements to luck when they are in fact the result of thorough preparation and hard work.
  2. Positive Thinking: Notice your thought patterns and pay attention to when self-limiting thoughts arise – most often when you are contemplating a change, doing something differently or when you are aiming high. Would you speak to others the same way you speak to yourself? Would you let others speak to you that way? Be kind to yourself.
  3. Visualise Success: Professional athletes do this all the time. Take some time to picture yourself succeeding in any task or event that seems daunting. It is a proven way to deal with any performance-related stress.
  4. Normalise Failure: Develop a new way to view failure. Catch the imposter syndrome thoughts and practise replacing them with kinder thoughts. Make note of some famous quotes to help you at these times. Henry Ford once said, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”  According to Michael Jordan, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
  5. Be a Role Model: As a leader, practise showing vulnerability to your people. Share your experiences and help normalise imposter syndrome so others can seek help.  A few months ago, I attended an inspirational event at the House of Commons and could see the look of awe and fascination in the eyes of audience members as they watched the panel of successful leaders.  I could almost hear their thoughts of “that could never be me up there”. That is, until I asked the panelists if any of them ever suffers from imposter syndrome.  The energy in the room shifted as these successful leaders started talking about how they deal with their self-limiting thoughts. They were no different to those aspiring young people in the audience, but they had developed strategies to help them deal with imposter syndrome.

Change can be difficult especially if you doubt your own abilities or are too busy to explore barriers.  If you would like to talk with someone about imposter syndrome and discuss how coaching can help you and your team overcome it, contact us for an informal chat.