The impact of Impostor Syndrome on CEOs
70% of millennials have impostor syndrome; it’s a growing trend in the modern world. First discovered in the 1970s, impostor syndrome is typified by a constant and persistent belief you are not as competent as you are believed to be. Understandably, impostor syndrome is most often found in those who have elevated or high-pressure positions: doctors, scientists, and, of course, CEOs. These are individuals who have received consistent accolades and success but still feel that it has been unearned. CEOs who suffer from this syndrome feel uncertain, anxious, and guilty.
As CEOs, you are often called upon to make difficult decisions that have widespread consequences for your employees, customers, and shareholders. Often you may need to make a decision that will have a negative impact on others, in the best interests of your organisation.
Exploring impostor syndrome and CEO guilt
If impostor syndrome is the cause, then CEO guilt is the effect. When you feel as though you are somehow unworthy of your appointment, any decision you make is going to feel that much dire. Consider a CEO with impostor syndrome who is forced to lay off a large number of employees. Due to their impostor syndrome, they may then be haunted by a number of questions:
- If I were a better CEO, would I have been able to save those jobs?
- Why should I still have a job when I’m clearly just pretending?
- Could the company be headed towards failure because of me?
Of course, these questions are unfair: they are based on the premise that the CEO is not doing a good job and that they could have somehow avoided the situation. Most importantly, impostor syndrome means that you believe that you are not as good as other people think you are. It isn’t just that you feel incompetent; it’s that you feel as though you are a fraud.
The impostor syndrome impacts any successful demographic. Though it’s often been posited that female CEOs are the most likely to experience impostor syndrome, it’s actually fairly equally split over all genders and demographics. Anyone can feel like an impostor — but it may have a more negative impact on women and minorities, who may also have other factors working against them.
A lack of confidence may actually be a major component of success, so it makes sense that successful people will find themselves in moments of self-doubt. Successful individuals are those who are never satisfied with themselves, those who are always clamouring for more. These are people who expect only the best from themselves — and are therefore harder on themselves in the wake of perceived failure.
The only way of avoiding this is learning to recognise (and react to) the triggers.
- If you have recently experienced a professional failure, such as a mismanaged business acquisition, it may be easy to assume that you have finally failed enough to be found out. In this situation, failure is considered to be your default state — even if you have failed very infrequently — and you may feel as though it’s been a long time coming. You may feel as though all your successes were sheer luck but that the failure is evidence of your own incompetence.
- Conversely, impostor syndrome can occur if you receive rewards or recognition that you don’t feel that you deserve. You may question why you’ve received this award and you may feel anxiety associated with accepting the reward; what if they realise they made a mistake?
- On the path of career development, you may begin to feel impostor syndrome once you have completed a large project or accomplished something great. When the glow of success has worn off, you will be left contemplating your next project and fearful that it will not go as well.
We now live in a world in which most people experience some level of impostor syndrome. But this type of self-doubt can be absolutely more crippling for you than it would be for an average individual. As a CEO, you need to be extraordinarily self-aware; otherwise, you may make emotionally led decisions rather than carefully considered ones. You can begin managing your impostor syndrome by not only identifying your triggers but also responding mindfully to allay their effects.
- Talk to others. Impostor syndrome is rooted in the idea that others have a perception of you that differs from reality. Talking to others directly and discussing your concerns is an excellent way to resolve impostor syndrome; after all, if they can recognise your faults but still believe you’re right for the position, then you aren’t ‘putting one over’ on anyone at all. You may also find that the person you’re talking to feels similarly.
- Don’t consider imperfection a deal breaker. There is no such thing as a perfect CEO. Even the most successful CEOs in the world still make mistakes. Understand that any of your imperfections or mistakes aren’t deal breakers; they are learning experiences and opportunities to change.
- Try to focus on the positive. There are areas where you surely realise that you are an expert or a specialist — and you know that you wouldn’t have gotten as far as you have without unique talents. By focusing on where you’re good at rather than where you’re bad at, you can feel more confident in your role.
- Adopt a mindset focused on growth. Rather than focusing on your own shortcomings (either real or imagined), you should instead focus on the areas that you want to improve. This can radically reframe your methods of thinking: rather than being focused on getting caught, you can instead focus on being better.
- Avoid the compulsion to downshift. One of the most insidious consequences of impostor syndrome is often the urge to downshift — to step down in your career plan and avoid responsibility. Before making any drastic changes to your career (such as stepping down as CEO), you must court other opinions.
Managing impostor syndrome
Everyone has moments of feeling ill equipped to deal with the challenges that life has presented them with. A true leader and a truly successful individual can recognise these doubts and can still move forward in spite of them. Though you will undoubtedly have moments in which you feel as though you do not deserve your own success, these are just moments — and they will pass. For a CEO, it is simply important that you continue to keep moving, growing, and succeeding, in spite of your concerns.
Impostor syndrome and CEO guilt are best managed by reaching out to other individuals and talking about your concerns. It’s lonely being a CEO — but most of what you’re going through are more common than you think. Through TEC, you can gain access to a large network of accomplished individuals who are having the same experiences. Not only will you be able to request guidance from those more experienced and knowledgeable than yourself, but you’ll also be able to aid those who are still at the beginning of their journey. For more information, contact TEC today.