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5 ways to overcome imposter syndrome as a leader
Image by Jimmy Foulds

5 min read

5 ways to overcome imposter syndrome as a leader

Have you ever felt like you’re a fraud at work? We dive deeper into this feeling of inadequacy and how leaders can overcome imposter syndrome.

People come to you for support, permission, and advice. At the same time, you feel underqualified and incapable, struggling to sort out your tasks as well.

Many leaders are perceived as competent, confident, and having direction. But what if that’s not the case? Turns out, feeling that you’re incapable and not equipped for your position is a common feeling.

Imposter syndrome, defined

What exactly is imposter syndrome? The term can be defined as the persisting feeling of inadequateness, despite real success.

According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, over 70% of people reported feeling like an imposter at some point in their careers. Some thoughts of imposter syndrome include:

  • Feeling like a fake and fear of being “caught”
  • Attributing successes and achievements to pure luck
  • Immense fear of failure leading to anxiety and perfectionism

Feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and insignificance drive imposter syndrome. When the imposter in you takes over, you start feeling small and doubtful of your abilities. That’s because there’s negative self-talk involved—when you think you don’t deserve the recognition and position you’re at, it can undeniably impact how you’re performing. You’re probably struggling to make decisions and show up as your courageous self.  

Who am I to be leading a team?

Imposter syndrome is much more far-reaching when you’re expected to lead and guide other people. It gets lonely at the top—more often than not, there’s simply nobody to turn to and act as your sounding board.

But if you’re a leader with imposter feelings, you’re far from the exception. Imposter syndrome is common in men and women across most age ranges and disproportionately affects certain racial minorities. A study by KPMG also found that over 75% of women executives experienced imposter syndrome. From the high achieving former First Lady Michelle Obama to Hollywood actor Tom Hanks, nobody, no matter how famous or successful, is immune to imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome can amplify weaknesses and skew perception to make limitations seem greater than what they actually are, leaving people feeling exposed and inadequate. And that’s what causes individuals to stop trying, second-guess their decisions, step out of the spotlight, or quit altogether.

In particular, early-stage leaders—such as those who recently got promoted to leadership positions—are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome due to the higher stakes of role changes. Feeling lost or not knowing where to start when taking on new challenges can make great leaders stop believing in their own abilities and judgment. When they stop speaking up though, that’s when the real problems start.

These are just some of the consequences of imposter syndrome when leaders start feeling overwhelmed:

  • Feeling unprepared
  • Thinking that your expertise is unnecessary
  • Avoiding feedback and reluctant to ask for support
  • Refuse new opportunities
  • Overworking and burnout
  • Turning down opportunities
  • Second-guessing your decisions and abilities
  • Lack of momentum to see projects to completion
  • Downplaying your contributions

How to manage imposter syndrome as a leader

Now, let’s not sugarcoat things. The dreaded imposter feeling may be here to stay, particularly during phases of steep learning. That being said, we all know that being out of the comfort zone is where growth happens. Start with self-awareness and acknowledge these emotions, then work on some strategies to manage imposter syndrome:  

1. Trust your team and get honest feedback

The best way to learn about your actual competence, contributions, or leadership style, is to ask and have open discussions. Collect information about your true impact and performance, so you don’t get skewed by insecurity. Every so often, get some external feedback from the people you work with so you’re not clouded by your doubts and remind yourself of your accomplishments through your team. 

2. Admit that you don’t have all the answers 

When a leader hides on the sidelines and is full of self-doubt, they may influence others and create an underperforming team. That’s why as a leader, it’s more important than ever to be vulnerable and transparent at work when you hit roadblocks. You might even find that talking about your fears openly can help people feel more comfortable to share their own, and become proactive in contributing. In reality, nobody really expects you to know everything. And chances are, you’re in this position for a legitimate reason that’s beyond luck or the right time. 

3. Self-compassion and noticing your accomplishments 

It’s hard not to feel like an imposter when there are always new skills, new platforms, and new things to master. Pay attention to your self-talk. Are you too tough on yourself? Do you have an inner critic that's always negative and brings you down? Be gentle with yourself. 

It also helps to celebrate those small wins instead of focusing on what’s not yet done. Whether it’s closing a new deal, clearing up your emails, or scheduling meetings for the rest of the week, give yourself a pat on the back and recognize how much you have to offer.  Try to accept compliments rather than discrediting and minimizing your contributions. 

4. Look for advice or mentorship to keep you accountable

Leaders also need support. Arguably more than the people they’re responsible for! Use your resourcefulness and build professional networks that you trust. Having a community to brainstorm ideas, ask questions, and share experiences with will help you feel less lonely and build a sense of camaraderie. You may also choose to engage with a leadership coach—there’s nothing like confiding in someone who’s also invested in your growth and maximizing your potential. 

5. Be mindful of burnout 

I know I know, you’re trying to prove a point. But working past dinner time to prove that you’re always on the job isn’t going to help. Step back and let others play their part, because sometimes it makes sense for other people to take charge.

It also helps as a wider organization, to build a wellness-focused workplace. The ultimate goal for leaders who care about employee wellbeing is a culture that recognizes and values mental health. Why not discuss imposter syndrome to help normalize this topic and encourage people to get to know each other on a more personal level?

Remember, you’re not the imposter

When facing imposter syndrome, know that you aren’t alone. All leaders experience this at some point. But, the greatest leaders reframe these feelings so that they’re excited by the opportunity to grow and learn. No matter how seasoned you are as a leader, remember you can always ask for help along the way. Keep calm and carry on! 

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Faye Wai

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