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Overcoming impostor syndrome

Imposter syndrome can strike the most qualified and successful people. Here's how leaders can overcome this and act with confidence.

6 min read


Overcoming impostor syndrome


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“I feel like they’re eventually going to find out that I really don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve been feeling my way along for most of my career.”

Those words were uttered by an accomplished woman who was chosen by her organization to be part of a special development program designed to foster female advancement to the C-suite. Evelyn was the third woman that week who had expressed to me some version of “impostor syndrome” and was struggling to embrace her own greatness.

Despite holding multiple graduate degrees and being accomplished in her current role, Evelyn possessed a fear that she would sooner or later be exposed as a fraud. In her mind, being viewed as capable was intimately connected to her knowing all the answers to all the challenges that her team might encounter. If she didn’t, in Evelyn’s mind, she was a failure.

Imposter syndrome is not unique to women in the workplace. It happens to others as well, though it may manifest differently. Perhaps you worry that your luck is running out, and at some point in your career, you’ll encounter a problem that you don’t know how to solve. Maybe you look at other successful people and think, “They know how to do this better than I do,” so you devolve into a process of judging yourself harshly. None of this negative self-talk has ever helped anyone become more successful, yet so many of us engage in it.

Alisa Cohn, executive coach and author of the new book, “From Start-Up to Grown-up,” recently shared with me her experience with coaching CEOs and founders of startups.

“People say that women experience imposter syndrome more than men do. I’m not sure if that’s true; in my experience, both men and women suffer from it. Some of the flavors include “They’re going to realize that I’m not any good at this; my luck is finally running out” and “Jeff Bezos would know how to handle this; I don’t.” 

Founders, she notes, focus on the negative when things aren’t progressing well in their businesses, especially in the early phase. They are more likely to embrace the belief that when someone joins the company, that person is doing them a favor. And, if they leave, it’s somehow the fault of the founder for not keeping that employee engaged.

What these founders don’t appreciate, Cohn contends, is how deeply employees have embraced their vision for the organization. They fail to see how much employees focus on their positives attributes and follow them because of their vision, despite the leader’s own perceived inadequacies.

The take-home lesson is that a having a strong vision for your company can trump any doubts you may have had about yourself, because people want to be a part of making an inspiring dream a reality. Employees expect you to have vision, but they don’t expect you to be perfect.

If you are struggling with impostor syndrome, there are some proactive steps you can take to manage it.

1. Examine your inner demons

What are the negative thoughts dominating the conversations going on inside your head?  What unexperienced tragedies are you dress rehearsing in your mind? Take a moment and write them down. Then review it carefully. You’ll likely find that deep scrutiny reveals that many of your fears are not only unfounded, but unlikely to manifest.

2. Create a new narrative

One way to counteract the negative mind chatter is to replace it with a new narrative in which you see yourself positively. This is not woo-woo nonsense; it works.

Elite athletes mentally rehearse their plays for the upcoming game. They envision success, identify approaches to overcoming roadblocks and “see” themselves as winners. The same technique can apply to how you approach your day, lead your team or grow your company. A winning mindset matters.

3. Rein in your quest for perfection

Extreme self-doubt can a breeding ground for perfectionism, the kind that unnecessarily heightens stress in your daily experience and puts pressure on the team around you. That doesn’t mean ignoring the mistakes you’ve made in the past or thinking that you won’t make mistakes again. What it hopefully means is that you’ve examined where you’ve gone wrong, learned from that experience and moved on.

After finishing a project or achieving a goal, it’s a good practice to review what you and your team have learned, with a particular focus on what you did right. This balances out the tendency to obsess over what could have been improved.

4. Make a list of your successes

This is what Cohn would call your “highlight reel” of all the things you’ve done well and the obstacles you’ve overcome. Most people who make it to leadership positions didn’t do so by being abysmal failures at everything else they attempted. You’re no exception.

Every time you hear that negative talk on a rewind loop in your mind, take out your success list and review it. Maybe that’s even daily, if that’s helpful. Let it be a reminder that past success is the best predictor of future success.


Alaina Love is CEO of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.

When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well-being. Follow Love on TwitterFacebookYouTube or her blog.

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