Effective Leadership Article

What Is Imposter-Syndrome? And How to Battle It!

Imposter syndrome by Cindy Wahler

What does imposter-syndrome feel like? And how to start tackling it in four simple steps.

How many of you believe you don’t deserve a seat at the table?

And how many of you worry you will be found out?

It’s quite often that the following refrains are echoed by many leaders; “I am not that smart”, “I am not sure I have the skills to do this job”, “I wonder if my boss will call me out”, “Everybody thinks I am great, but I really believe I am just plain lucky”.

Many skilled and highly seasoned leaders feel plagued with self-doubt. It is shocking as despite real accomplishments, there is this internal negative self-talk.

Even leaders who are game-changers thought disruptors and have created a lasting imprint on the world have suffered from imposter syndrome.

Some of these luminary leaders include every facet of life David Bowie, Serena Williams, Howard Schultz, Tina Fey, Maya Angelou, Arianna Huffington, Lady Gaga, Natalie Portman, Sonia Sotomayor, and Tom Hanks.

Even Albert Einstein stated “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”

How could this be so?

Let’s take self-esteem. We are all somewhere on the spectrum from self-doubt to feelings of grandeur.

You probably will be shocked to learn that narcissists also suffer from the imposter syndrome. Their bravado is a camouflage for a sense of incredible anxiety about their ability to be heard and make a difference.

What emerges is an exaggerated sense of self-worth in the form of excessive self-promotion. What is behind this is tremendous insecurity.

Others who feel plagued with imposter syndrome suffer from feelings of undeservedness. Every time their boss or peers shine the light, it creates a sense of embarrassment or discomfort.

Ever-increasing accomplishments fuel the flames of self-doubt and create greater pressure.

Awards, bonuses and promotions rather than building a base of security lead to further unease.

There is a deep-seated fear they may be found out. Someone will conclude they are a fake.

So for those of you suffering from imposter syndrome, you are not alone. Take comfort in knowing that even those you revere or are global figures with groundbreaking achievements may also have a core belief that they have fooled the public.

Despite having imposter syndrome, the good news is there are strategies you can employ to overcome or combat these debilitating feelings.

Reframe the why of reward and recognition:

Your rewards are based on merit. Organisations do not recognise or provide visibility to individuals who are not adding value. The goal of all organisations is to generate revenue and to be profitable. If you are singled out, it is not because you are a poster child for your organisation’s benevolence. You should reposition and challenge your faulty assumptions. Accept that you are getting rewarded for your great efforts and ability to make a difference.

Stop comparing yourself:

There will always be smarter, more talented, brighter individuals at the table. The danger in comparing yourself is that you will lose. Think about the fact that you do have a seat at the table. This way of thinking means people around you believe you have something valuable to say. It is a seat that you have earned.

Own your wins:

For some, our families might have taught us to be humble. Humility is an important attribute. It allows us to acknowledge mistakes and be open to feedback. However, it is essential to note that being humble does not mean you should shy away from your accomplishments. Stand tall. You are as deserving as anyone else.

Failure is advantageous:

When we fail, it is about recognising that everyone else has likely failed at some point too. We try to make decisions based upon the best data we have at the time. Stop being so hard on yourself and reframe failure as an opportunity to pivot and chart a new course.

Acknowledge that no one is perfect. We all make mistakes, and we all have feelings of self-doubt. Make sure that you see your success as not due to chance or the random nature of the universe, but rather as a result of your very own talent.

Once you own your achievements, you will continue to drive change with one fundamental difference.

You will now be able to celebrate your wins along with everybody who has been cheering you on, right from the very beginning.
Now that’s victory.

About the author

Cindy Wahler

Cindy Wahler

A Psychologist and expert in human behavior, Dr. Wahler's former leadership consultancy clients include British Telecom, Toyota, Ralph Lauren, and the Royal Bank of Canada to name a few. Dr. Wahler is also a regular contributor to Forbes, Huffington Post and Chief Executive Officer.