Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: Unmask the Confident Leader Within

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: Unmask the Confident Leader Within

Written By Gavin Bryce

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I was recently asked to contribute to an article on ‘imposter syndrome’ for HR News to help leaders to understand it better and its impact on their mental health. I have written extensively on this topic, most notably in my new book, ‘Unmask the Confident Leader Within‘. In my book, I refer to imposter syndrome, together with all other self-limiting thoughts, as the ‘Mask’. Think of the Mask as a fictional character of the mind that has the power to assume your identity. It represents any thought, feeling, or action that you wouldn’t consciously choose. I consider imposter syndrome as Mask-thinking. 

 

Have you ever questioned your accomplishments, feared being exposed as a ‘fraud’, or did you ever believe that success in your role occurred by mere luck or timing, rather than your ability? These feelings are common, especially among leaders. Research shows over 70% of all high-functioning professionals will experience imposter syndrome in their career. This makes it so common, in fact, that we should consider it normal functioning. 

 

Many top executives and successful entrepreneurs are affected, and it can impact their mental health and work significantly. In this blog, I’m going to delve into the nuances of imposter syndrome, uncover how it affects leaders and their businesses, and share practical strategies to overcome it.

What is imposter syndrome and how does it affect leaders?

Imagine this: you’re climbing the ladder of success, accolades are coming your way, yet you doubt your abilities. You feel like a fraud and believe you don’t deserve your success. It feels like you are battling an inner critic. You are bracing yourself for the moment you’re ‘found out’.

 

We commonly know this psychological pattern as imposter syndrome. Confusingly, however, it’s not a syndrome at all. Indeed, the researchers who first discovered it referred to it as imposter phenomenon. No medical professional will give you an official diagnosis. There is nothing wrong with you (and you don’t need fixing). We must embrace imposter feelings and thoughts as normal functioning in the leadership realm.

 

Imposter phenomenon permeates leadership roles more than one might imagine. It causes leaders to discount their competencies, attributing their progress and achievements largely to luck or deceit. The constant self doubt dampens their confidence and self worth, often deterring them from taking decisive actions and bold initiatives. 

 

Imposter syndrome affects leaders in various ways. Leaders with imposter syndrome retreat from their responsibilities, making them less influential and effective. They may also avoid taking risks in fear of failure, consequently inhibiting innovation within their team or business. 

 

Note: Imposter syndrome is not a permanent state but a reaction to certain circumstances and stressors. Understanding its root (or ‘triggers’) and learning effective coping strategies can assist leaders to overcome it and thrive in their respective domains.

What are the common signs and symptoms of imposter syndrome in leaders?

Imposter syndrome is not a reflection of your abilities, but a reflection of your mindset.
– Mel Robbins

Imposter syndrome in leaders often presents itself in certain ways. While individual experiences may vary, there are common imposter feelings and signs that can hint at the presence of this psychological phenomenon: 

  • Perfectionism: Leaders with imposter syndrome may set impossibly high standards for themselves and be very self-critical when they cannot meet these expectations. They believe they must perform flawlessly to validate their competence.
  • Overworking: Leader who often feel the need to work harder and longer than others to prove their self worth. They fear that taking a break or asking for help may show them as frauds.
  • Minimising success: They may attribute their achievements to luck or external factors rather than their own abilities and hard work. Even when complimented, they struggle to accept praise and may feel like they are deceiving others.
  • Fear of failure: The fear of failure can be overwhelming and is a common imposter feeling. This fear is driven by the belief that their supposed exposure as a fraud is always looming over their shoulders, waiting for one mistake to reveal the ‘truth’.
  • Rejecting mentorship roles: Despite having the knowledge and experience, they may feel uncomfortable mentoring others because they fear their inadequacies will be exposed.
  • Struggling with delegation: They often struggle with delegating tasks, as they feel that if they want a task done right, they must do it themselves.
  • Comparing: It is common to compare with other ‘more successful’ leaders. However, such comparison is never like-for-like. More commonly, you will compare your weaknesses with other’s strengths. 

Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.
– Jon Acuff

Recognising these imposter feelings and signs is the initial step in addressing imposter syndrome and protecting your mental health.

 

Once leaders realise these thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, they can begin to challenge and change their thoughts and actions.

How does imposter syndrome impact a leader's decision-making abilities?

Imposter syndrome may have a profound influence on a leader’s decision-making abilities. It can breed self doubt and uncertainty, which can distort leaders into scrutinising their abilities and decisions intensively.

Self doubt is a critically damaging implication of imposter syndrome that can steer a leader into indecisiveness. The constant fear and doubt about one’s abilities could make them question every decision that they make. Over time, they might avoid making any significant decisions at all because of the fear of failure, inhibiting progress, and stifling innovation. If you are afraid to step out of your comfort zone, it could be a sign that you are in the grips of Mask-thinking, and imposter feelings.

Imposter thoughts can also lead to a tendency towards perfectionism. Leaders who feel like imposters often feel like they must be perfect in all that they do to hide their perceived fraudulence and incompetence. This could cause decision paralysis because they are always waiting to take the ‘perfect’ decision, which, in reality, does not exist. Equally, they may pile pressure on themself to get, yet more, qualifications to ‘justify’ their intellect and competency. But it will never be enough. 

This style of self-limiting thinking injects a persistent fear of failure. Leaders suffering from imposter syndrome often perceive that every mistake they make is a validation of their self doubts, making the decision-making process extremely stressful. They might prefer staying in the safe zone and opting for less risky decisions, which can hinder the company’s growth in the long run. 

The imposter feeling of being fearful of being ‘found out’ may also stop leaders from seeking help when they need it. They might hold back from asking advice from their team or peers for fear of appearing inadequate, leading to poor or uninformed decisions.

In addition, imposter syndrome can lead to overworking tendencies. Leaders with this mindset often equate extreme hard work with competence. They might spend unreasonable hours evaluating decisions repeatedly, leading to burnout and reduced mental efficiency.

Understanding these consequences can help leaders recognise the impact of imposter syndrome on their decision-making abilities and take steps to address it.

What are the potential consequences of imposter syndrome on a leader's business?

When leaders fall prey to imposter syndrome, the ripple effects can extend beyond their personal mental health and well-being and profoundly affect the overall direction and performance of their businesses. If unchecked, it may lead to several potentially damaging consequences, which I will explore further in this section. 

First off, imposter syndrome can undermine a leader’s self-confidence, thus hampering their ability to lead decisively and assertively. This may invite a culture of uncertainty and apprehension within the organisation, ultimately resulting in impaired productivity and employee morale. A leader who underestimates their own skills and doubts their own capabilities can easily perpetuate an environment of self doubt and anxiety amongst their teams. 

Second, another significant repercussion of imposter syndrome is the inability of leaders to accept their accomplishments. They become overly critical of their achievements, attributing them to luck or external factors rather than recognising their own competence. This not only leads to low self-esteem but also discourages them from taking on future challenges and opportunities for fear of not living up to expectations. 

Third, leaders succumbing to imposter feelings are likely to experience burnout, which is both harmful to their mental health and detrimental to the business. Their constant pursuit of unattainably high standards, coupled with an incapacitating fear of failure, often leads to excessive work hours and stress. Increased burnout rates amidst leadership can have a trickle-down effect, fostering a toxic work culture of overwork and highly stressful conditions. 

“Remember, imposter syndrome can affect anyone, no matter how successful they are. It’s not about the reality of your own skills or talents; it’s about your internal perception of them. The way you perceive yourself matters a great deal in leadership and can significantly influence the shape and trajectory of your business.”

Finally, imposter syndrome can lead to diminished risk tolerance among leaders. The fear of making mistakes or receiving criticism may deter them from embracing innovative ideas or making bold, strategic decisions for their businesses. This can cause stagnant growth and lost competitiveness in dynamic, fast-paced markets. 

Imposter feelings can create a domino effect of negative outcomes for a leader’s business, leading to lowered morale, reduced productivity, increased burnout rates, and stifled growth. It is essential to remember that understanding, self-awareness, and proactive strategies can mitigate these detrimental effects.

What strategies can leaders employ to overcome imposter syndrome?

Overcoming imposter syndrome doesn’t require therapy or medication. But it requires energy to overcome it and protect your mental health. There are various strategies that leaders can employ to manage and eventually transcend this self-eroding phenomenon. We must not forget that the first milestone on the path to overcoming imposter syndrome altogether is admitting its existence. I call this step, ‘Expose the Mask’. 

Self-Awareness 

Stating the obvious, perhaps, but we must explicitly know ourselves and our thought processes. Practice mindfulness and consistent introspection to identify the negative self-talk that often signals imposter syndrome. Doubts about your abilities and success are not uncommon, but timely and accurate identification can prevent them from escalating into imposter syndrome. 

Acknowledging Strengths and Accomplishments 

Highlighting your strengths and acknowledging your accomplishments is pivotal in combating imposter syndrome. Keep an accomplishment diary, and when self doubt rears its head, remind yourself of the victories you’ve achieved. Evaluation, when not harsh, can be a productive process and can help bridge the gap you perceive between expectation and reality. 

Seeking External Feedback 

A constant cycle of self-appreciation might become stagnant after a while – that’s where external feedback and perspectives can be beneficial. Regular positive feedback from colleagues and peers can provide an objective reality check, further helping to dissolve the fictitious ‘Mask’ imposter within. 

Embracing Failure and Mistakes 

Failure, when viewed constructively, can be a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block. Some of the most successful leaders have failed multiple times before achieving their notable success. Embrace your mistakes, learn from them, and never let them define your worthiness. Having a growth mindset is an important part of being a successful leader. 

Coaching 

Having a leadership coach like me can be of immense help when dealing with imposter syndrome. Coaches can guide you by providing challenge and reassurance, helping you to address and manage feelings of inadequacy. 

Overcoming imposter syndrome requires a mix of self-reflection, acceptance of your capabilities, seeking external opinions, resilience in the face of failure, and coaching. Above all, always remember: your achievements are not a matter of luck or timing, but a reflection of your own skills, hard work, and relentless determination. 

How can leaders create a supportive environment for themselves and their teams to combat imposter syndrome?

Leaders can indeed play a massive role in creating a supportive and understanding environment that not just fosters mutual respect and recognition, but also helps in mitigating imposter syndrome. But how might a leader achieve this? Well, let me share a few concrete steps. 

Lead by Example: The first, being the most crucial step, is leading by example. Whether it’s displaying vulnerability, accepting failures, or openly acknowledging their fears, a leader who openly deals with imposter syndrome sets a tone that it’s okay to make mistakes and have self doubts. This unsurprisingly promotes an environment of honesty and acceptance, potentially encouraging others to do the same. 

Encourage Open Communication: Next on the list is spearheading open dialogue. Encouraging team members to voice their concerns, anxieties or impediments can help in unmasking the ‘imposter’ feelings. Thus, creating communication bridges that assure employees that their voices are heard and considered is imperative.

Recognise Accomplishments: Also high on the list is recognising and appreciating even the smallest of accomplishments. This instils confidence in employees, and over time, can help them understand their self worth, lessening the influence of the fraudulent feelings. 

  • Establish a Coaching Programme: Coaching programmes can be an invaluable tool for tackling imposter syndrome. By pairing less experienced team members with more seasoned professionals, you create an environment that encourages growth and development. This relationship provides a safe, judgement-free zone for individuals to explore their abilities and challenge their self doubts.
  • Promote a Learning Environment: An environment that promotes curiosity and continuous learning can go a long way in combating imposter syndrome. We see when failure or not knowing something not as a weakness but an opportunity to grow, individuals feel less like imposters and more like learners.

Curtailing imposter syndrome is not a one-person responsibility — it’s a collective effort. An environment that values every voice, appreciates every achievement, fosters learning and promotes open communication, paves the way to shrink these ‘imposter’ feelings. As leaders, we must strive to create such a culture. After all, leadership is less about leading, and more about creating an environment where everyone can flourish. Isn’t it?

How can overcoming imposter syndrome contribute to the growth and success of a leader's business?

Overcoming imposter syndrome isn’t merely a personal victory; it is a significant step toward the prosperity and advancement of your business. When leaders confront and manage this pervasive self doubt, they unlock their true capability and potential, fostering a positive change that reverberates through the entire organisation. 

Improved Decision-Making: When leaders cast aside the shadow of imposter syndrome, they gain a substantial improvement in their decision-making abilities. Decisions become less compromised by self doubt, rendering them more solid, strategic and well calculated. This improved decision-making may contribute to better strategies, more effective policies and, eventually, increased business performance and success. 

Increased Self-Confidence: Overcoming imposter syndrome can eradicate the feeling of being unqualified or a ‘fraud’, replaced instead with genuine self-confidence. This newfound confidence can influence your approach to leadership, encouraging you to take bold steps, innovate, and drive your business towards new heights. 

Nurturing a Healthy Work Environment: Leaders who have overcome imposter syndrome are typically more understanding when members of their teams deal with the same issue. This empathy enables them to create a healthy work environment, where they recognise and appreciate everyone’s involvement and contribution, and where individuals are not afraid to share their ideas or pursue success. This healthy work environment can augment productivity, spur creativity, and boost overall staff morale. 

Improved Communication and Relationships: Leaders thriving in self-belief are far more likely to communicate their ideas effectively, enabling a robust dialogue within the organisation. They are also more equipped to forge strong relationships with their employees, partners, and stakeholders, fostering an environment of mutual respect and collaboration. 

Recognising and overcoming imposter syndrome is not an overnight process. Yet, the benefits it entails — both for individuals and organisations — make it a fight worth carrying out. Effective leadership requires a blend of competence and confidence, with hardly any room for self-inflicted doubt. Only when we see ourselves as we genuinely are — capable, and enough — can we lead others to see the same? After all, great leadership starts from within, doesn’t it?

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can imposter syndrome lead to burnout?

Indeed, it can. Imposter syndrome can be exhausting, emotionally draining, triggering a level of stress that, if unaddressed, can certainly lead to burnout. The constant self doubt, feeling of inadequacy, and fear of being uncovered as a ‘fraud’ can demand an extreme emotional toll on an individual, with burnout as a potential consequence. 

Is imposter syndrome more common in leaders?

Imposter syndrome is not inherently more common in leaders. However, leadership roles often come with heightened scrutiny and high expectations, which can stress feelings of imposter syndrome. Therefore, it’s crucial for leaders to understand and address it effectively. 

What are the effects of imposter syndrome on the overall business performance?

Imposter syndrome can have tangible negative effects on a business. Besides affecting individual productivity and team morale, leaders with imposter syndrome may avoid opportunities for business growth for fear of exposure to failure. This can stifle innovation, limit productivity, and ultimately hamper the growth of the business. 

Can imposter syndrome be completely eradicated?

Just like any other psychological phenomenon, it’s challenging to completely ‘eradicate’ imposter syndrome. However, through self-awareness, acknowledgement of accomplishments, seeking positive feedback, embracing failure, and seeking mentorship, leaders can certainly mitigate its effects. The key is to recognise and address these feelings when they arise, rather than let them dictate one’s actions and decisions. 

Does admitting imposter syndrome make one appear less competent?

On the contrary, admitting to feeling like an imposter can actually be an act of courage and humility. It shows self-awareness and the willingness to seek help and grow, qualities which are admired and respected in leadership. We are all human and no one is immune from doubt and fear. It’s how we handle these feelings that truly define us as leaders.

Further Reading