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ATD Blog

What You Need to Know About Imposter Syndrome and Leadership

Tuesday, August 16, 2022
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Maya Angelou, one of the most resonant and adored poets, famously said, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

She’s not alone. Thoughts like this are not uncommon:

  • I’m not ready for this.
  • I’m not as good as the others.
  • I just got lucky.
  • I have no idea what I’m doing.
  • I don’t deserve this job.

These kinds of pervasive thoughts characterize imposter syndrome. Even some of the most recognizable names and influential individuals aren’t immune to its harmful psychological effects. For many high-performing leaders, overcoming thoughts like these may present their biggest obstacle.

Research suggests that a stunning 70 percent of people will experience the feelings of intense self-doubt and incompetence that make up imposter syndrome in their lifetime. Fortunately, there are strategies leaders can learn to overcome these thoughts and feelings to lead with self-confidence. The first step is understanding what imposter syndrome is, and what triggers it.

Understanding What Causes Imposter Syndrome in Leaders

Contrary to how the name might sound, imposter syndrome is not related to mental health pathology, nor is it an official diagnosis. Rather, it’s a phenomenon coined by psychologists in 1978 that involves subjective feelings of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence of high achievement.

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These feelings often arise in individuals who have already accomplished great things. They’ve earned praise and respect from many, but they live in fear of ultimately being exposed as frauds. They frequently attribute their success to chance or luck rather than accepting due recognition. These people might also feel the need to overwork themselves to achieve perfection, or conversely, they may quit before failure can occur.

Experts have found that imposter syndrome impacts people indiscriminately. But when it comes to leaders, overworking or quitting in the pursuit or avoidance of perfection can be tangibly detrimental to success. Further, a significant lack of confidence can undermine leaders’ relationships with their teams, clients, and partners.

That’s where leadership coaching comes in. Coaching can play a vital role in helping leaders identify problematic thought patterns and help them create new behaviors with which to overcome imposter syndrome and its associated impediments to their success.

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Combating Imposter Syndrome With Leadership Coaching

Breaking a cycle of self-doubt and ruminating thoughts can be tough. But with highly trained coaches to help leaders acquire new skills and behaviors and role-play real-life scenarios, leaders can successfully regain their confidence. Consider these key strategies to successfully combat imposter syndrome:

  • Recognize and rework negative self-talk: Leaders can easily fall into a self-deprecating rumination trap, but it’s much harder to recognize and avert these thought patterns without support. That’s why leadership coaching can be life- and career-changing; coaches can provide an outsider’s perspective in a safe development environment, recognize the negative self-talk, and begin to help leaders rework it.
  • View self-doubt and failure as part of the process: There’s no reason that self-doubt and failure must occupy significant brain space in leaders’ minds or hold them back from success. Coaches can help leaders reframe and normalize these potentially damaging thoughts in a way that allows them to develop a healthy sense of doubt and an awareness of failure that motivates them to constantly do better without crippling them with misplaced fears.
  • Find joy and meaning outside of work: When leaders work more than 40 hours a week, it’s not surprising when they begin to attach feelings of self-worth to their work product and hyper focus on perfection. Coaches can help leaders identify healthier work habits, establish valuable boundaries, and allow them to separate their confidence from their output. This can lead to greater outcomes in a leader’s professional and personal life.

No leader should struggle with imposter syndrome alone, particularly when there are behavioral, science-backed development strategies available to help combat this phenomenon. Coaching can help leaders identify their own blind spots, gain confidence, normalize failure, boost performance, build more collaborative and productive relationships, and in the end, help them hold their rightful place in their organizations with pride.

About the Author

Komal Gulati is an artist, writer, a published researcher, and medical student at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine. She has previously written for the Scientific American, KevinMD, Temple Health Magazine, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the NeuroLeadership Institute's "Your Brain at Work" blog.

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