Are you experiencing Imposter Syndrome as a leader? You are not alone

Shadow of a man standing on a podium with a pinocchio nose.

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I’ll be the first to admit that there have been many moments throughout my career when I’ve let self-doubt creep in. But there have been two specific moments when I didn’t simply let self-doubt pop its head in; It was more like I let it completely engulf and immobilise me! 

The first scenario began on a flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. I had scored an upgrade (big win!) and found myself sitting next to the EMEA Managing Director of a globally recognised retail brand. We got talking and he quickly started sharing some of his biggest people challenges so I offered him a few tips and was just happy to chat. Over the course of several hours (if I wasn’t asleep), every now and then he would apologise for disturbing me and would share a different staffing challenge and ask for my advice.  

As we were landing, he asked me for my card (we’re talking about a time pre-dating LinkedIn!) and invited me to attend an upcoming EMEA leadership conference he was hosting in Bangkok a month later where he thought I could run a half-day seminar for his leaders on attraction, selection and retention strategies. 

Of course, I said yes, but in the few weeks that followed (not to mention on the flight to Thailand), I was mortified. What advice could I possibly have to share with the EMEA leaders of one of the world’s most recognised retail brands? Who on earth did that guy think I was? 

A few years later, I was invited to speak at a conference in Boston. Once again of course I said yes! As the conference dates got closer, the promotional material started revealing the other speakers, including two very famous names. There was my face and name on the registration page alongside two ‘big ticket’ headline acts, who would no doubt be drawing in the crowd. 

What could these people possibly take away from me after these two other ‘icons’ had shared their stories, experiences, and key messages?  

Sitting in the audience on the day, I was completely star struck. And I just kept thinking that I probably wasn’t even a blip on their radar. They probably hadn’t even looked at the promotional material, so they probably had no idea who I even was. And it was a big audience. Very big. 

Immobilised once more. 

On both occasions – the leadership meeting in Thailand and the conference in Boston – I didn’t let my inner saboteurs win on the day and both gigs went off really well. 

So why had I even let self-doubt make its appearance in the first place? 

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage … Imposter Syndrome. 

As a leader, it’s not uncommon to feel inadequate, to wonder how you got to where you are today, or to even feel like a bit of a fraudster occasionally. When I was a CEO, I would often ask myself, “What do they [my team] even see?”, “Why do they believe in all this?”, or “When will they realise that sometimes I’m literally flying by the seat of my pants? That whilst I might look calm on the outside, often on the inside I’m a complete wreck!” 

If you’ve ever had similar thoughts, you are certainly not alone. 

Perhaps you’ve felt that your career to date has been a series of lucky breaks – that you just happened to have been in the right place at the right time; that you were promoted into your leadership role by fluke or maybe even because somebody else said no when presented with the opportunity. 

Please shut down those thoughts immediately. 

You’ve landed where you are today either because other people (typically more senior to you) firmly believed in you and your ability and feel you absolutely deserve the position.

Or, if you are running your own show, because you had an idea, brought it to life, and have grown your business to a point where other people genuinely believe in your vision and in you as their leader. 

With the research stating that around 70% of leaders will suffer from imposter syndrome (typically on more than one occasion), it’s no wonder that self-doubt, nerves, that feeling of waiting to be caught out as a phoney, and your own inner critic can all be doing overtime while you try to keep all those other plates spinning around you. These feelings are particularly common in new leaders

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of imposter syndrome, please stop second guessing yourself. 

Just as I realised as I stood in front of that group of EMEA leaders in Bangkok, or as I walked out on to that stage following two real-life celebrities, that I absolutely deserved to be there, please shift your mindset to believe that you, too, haven’t simply fluked your way to where you are today. 

Start off by thinking of all your accomplishments.

Make a written list of them if you must. Remind yourself of your successes to date and try to stop comparing yourself to others. Putting others up on a pedestal will only exacerbate debilitating feelings. 

We’ve written about this before, but nobody expects you to have 100% of the answers 100% of the time. Try not to be so tough on yourself. It’s OK to ask for help; to show some vulnerability; to admit you’re scared or unsure; or even to admit you’ve messed up. If you convince yourself that you need to have the answers to every question, or that you need to be aware of every single issue your team members are facing 24 x7, you’ll probably crack and burn out … and that’s a far worse outcome than a mild dose of imposter syndrome. 

There’s no denying that it can be very lonely at the top.

But rather than second guessing the voices in your head, even if imposter syndrome hasn’t (yet) appeared on your radar, you might want to think about engaging a leadership coach – someone who can ensure you remain confident and help equip you to tackle whatever comes your way. An impartial confidant who is there for you unconditionally if a feeling of inadequateness creeps in or when self-doubt rears its ugly head. 

Remember hellomonday provides coaching and support to every leader, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders eliminate imposter syndrome.    

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