Last week I was in Brussels speaking to a group of senior HR executives from large European companies. The topic was leadership accountability and I shared many of the ideas from my book. It was a great conference and I came away with two key insights.
The first, is that leadership accountability is as critical of a business issue in Europe as it is in North America. I asked conference delegates to complete a brief survey and I found that almost 60% strongly agreed that their companies have a significant leadership accountability gap. Furthermore, only 27% believed that their companies had created a strong leadership culture. These findings continue to support my work and what we need to do to get leadership right in companies.
The second insight had to deal with the issue commonly referred to as the impostor phenomenon or syndrome. In fact, I was surprised to see how many of the delegates observed this in the executives of their companies.
This concept was first coined by psychologist Dr. Pauline Clance and occurs when highly successful individuals experience intense feelings of self-doubt and a nagging belief that they are unworthy and undeserving of their success. Overtime, these feelings can cause significant distress among individuals. While the original research focused on women, it also happens frequently with men as well.
One delegate really summarized the issue when she said, “I’ve worked with many of these executives who have spent their entire careers trying to get to the corner office, only to then be filled with a huge sense of self-doubt and even feeling like frauds.”
On my trip back home I reflected further on the discussions.
When you stand back and think about what it means to be a leader today, I could easily see how a successful business leader could become gripped with an imposter syndrome.
Being a leader today isn’t at all easy. The complexity of the business challenges we face, the pressure to produce results, and the scrutiny on your actions and decisions can be extremely intense. Furthermore the demands of senior leader roles are huge and often no one person will have everything it takes to meet those demands.
Given this context, it’s completely understandable how one can fall prey to feelings of self-doubt and even questioning one’s own ability to lead. Yet, this isn’t something that leaders are supposed to feel. We need to always appear strong, invulnerable and brimming with confidence.
I became even more intrigued about this topic when earlier this week, Quartz.com posted an article by Olivia Goldhill on the impostor syndrome. Talk about perfect timing.
Goldhill’s article featured quotes from a cavalcade of high profile individuals, all of who admit to feeling like an impostor. From Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (“There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud”) to actress Jodie Foster (”I don’t know what I’m doing) and author John Steinbeck (“I’ve been fooling myself and other people”), there are innumerable examples of highly successful individuals being wracked with self-doubt. In fact, she cited research estimating that 70% of people suffer from the imposter syndrome at some point.
The Quartz article also made a really intriguing point by sharing that there is actually a correlation between the impostor syndrome and success, an equation that suggests “those who don’t suffer imposture syndrome are more likely to be real frauds.” In other words, it may be healthier to admit we all feel like frauds, rather than put on a brave face or deny the feelings outright.
This got me thinking that as leaders we may need to pause and reflect on whether we feel we’re impostors or frauds. The reason is simple, if we aren’t fully aware, we may be gripped by self-doubt, which may then undermine our success.
The article provided a hotlink to a brief survey created by Dr. Clance that anyone can complete to answer the question: am I an impostor and do I feel like a fraud? I’d encourage you to complete it and reflect on your own responses.
Keep in mind that having impostor syndrome isn’t all bad. Some research suggests it may be a predictor of high achievement. So the real issue to me, is not whether or not you feel like a fraud, but rather if those beliefs ultimately serve to undermine your personal confidence and effectiveness.
Perhaps the truly successful leaders are the ones who can develop an ability to successfully lead even when they may feel unworthy or experience self-doubt
What do you think?