Leadership & the Imposter Syndrome

by | Sep 26, 2023 | Leadership | 0 comments

The leader of a portion of a major museum complex in Washington, D.C. desperately wanted to be a better leader, but his behavior consistently defaulted toward wanting to be liked. The leader of a major television station in the same city spent much of his time posturing rather than leading.

Both leaders suffered from the imposter syndrome. They are not unusual. Seventy to eighty percent of leaders have experienced the impostor syndrome. They are deeply concerned that they are not qualified to be in their leadership positions. They attribute their success to luck or the overestimations of others. They doubt their accomplish-ments and are fearful of being exposed as a fraud.

Those caught up in this syndrome find themselves trying too hard, pretending they’re okay, and feeling anxious about being found to be lacking. The dread of being found out and relentless self-doubt can cloud judgment and hinder their ability to be asser-tive, affecting their effectiveness.

Like our two leaders, they may seek validation in ways that are counterproductive, leading to burnout and decreased effectiveness.

The leader of the organization development unit in a large high-tech outfit in Silicon Valley and a caption in the U.S. Navy reacted differently to their imposter syndrome. They used the fear of being found out to overcompensate.

They both suffered from over-diligence, perfectionism, and a relentless cycle of over-preparation and procrastination. They over-worked themselves into success. They paid for it with anxiety attacks and poor work life balance.

There is no researched evidence that imposter syndrome consistently decreases leadership effectiveness. Whether the syndrome affects performance is an individual issue. That means self-awareness and making conscious choices can help.

We all have some aspect of ourselves that we consider worthless and unworthy. We believe others are judging us as we judge ourselves. A psychologist friend calls it the “core of rot” that everyone has and developed during our formative years.

Imposter syndrome is an excessive focus on our core of rot. When you notice it, it is time to refocus.

A group of students once asked me how I managed the racism and internalized op-pression that can make it terribly difficult for Black people to feel good about them-selves and succeed in predominantly white organizations.

It thought about it, then responded, “I focus on doing the best I can do, not on my self-doubt or whatever racism might be lurking around.” Where I focus my thoughts and energy is my choice. No one else. Focusing on my self-doubt or the racism of others diminishes my ability to be effective.

There are certainly stressful situations where my self-doubts want to overwhelm me. Occasionally they succeed and I find myself over-compensating, trying too hard, and making myself miserable.

When I notice that, I make myself take a break to pull myself together. Sometimes I need to call a colleague to remind me of who I am now, that I’m no longer an insecure kid. I can’t do without my support system!

We overestimate the value of self-confidence: You have, at some point, not done well when you were feeling good about yourself and done well when you weren’t feeling good about self. Our confidence has nothing to do with the ability to get to where you want to go. We feel good or poorly about ourselves, depending on the story we have about ourselves at any given point.

We all have a variety of both kinds of stories. When you’re feeling down about yourself, switch to some of your positive stories. Change the channel of your thoughts. It is your choice.

In summary, most of us experience the imposter syndrome from time to time. It is not unusual. Those self-doubts are old messages from our formative years that are no longer on target. When you notice them intruding, refocus to the task at hand. Remind yourself of the effort you successfully put in to where you are. Call on your support sys-tem without embarrassment. Your core of rot is something we all have. Make the choice to have it; don’t let it have you.


Michael F. Broom, Ph.D., CEO, Center for Human Systems,

is an organization development psychologist of 45 years of

experience with all kinds of people and organizations.

He is the author of The Infinite Organization, and Power, The Infinite Game.
Michael Broom smiling

Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, he is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.

Contact Dr. Broom for a free hour consultation at https://chumans.com.

You’ll be surprised by the difference a single hour can make!

~~~ michael@chumans.com ~~~

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