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‘I’m A Successful Senior Exec, But I Feel Like A Fraud’: How To Overcome Imposter Syndrome
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‘I’m A Successful Senior Exec, But I Feel Like A Fraud’: How To Overcome Imposter Syndrome

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Julian Saipe, Founder and Leadership Coach, Julian Alexander & Associates, Bringing A New Consciousness To Human Performance

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Some years ago, I remember watching a captivating television interview with Renée Fleming, the world-renowned soprano and longtime star of the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Anyone who loves opera and the human voice will know that Fleming has a god-given talent and has built and sustained a remarkable career. I was therefore surprised and saddened to hear Fleming talk about how she often walks out on stage and imagines someone in the audience standing up and shouting, “Imposter!”

Many high-performers suffer from imposter syndrome, the psychological pattern in which seemingly successful people (top leaders and executives included) doubt their accomplishments and live with an internal fear of being exposed as a fraud.

“Imposter syndrome doesn’t go away with any form of success,” says Australian tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-CEO of software company Atlassian. Cannon-Brookes speaks openly about the misconception that successful people don’t feel like frauds.

What is imposterism all about? Where does it come from, and what can be done about it?

Why are so many top executives unable to take their own success seriously? Why are feelings of self-doubt in leadership roles so widespread? Surely success breeds self-belief and confidence!

Psychological studies and research show that there are several common patterns and causes related to imposter syndrome. These include:

An underlying emotional deficit. There is a recognizable relationship between low self-worth and high achievement; here, a historical emotional deficiency fuels the sufferer’s repeated striving for the external trappings of success. Of course, the need to feel valued (a deeply human experience) does not go away despite career rewards and plaudits from the outside world — these drivers to succeed are misplaced and unhelpful. Unfortunately, striving and repeated success typically strengthen rather than weaken the perception of being a fraud, leading to a general lack of fulfillment.

The unexpected rise to success. The source of real success comes from a deeper place: a space where purpose and ambition organically generate good results. Be careful what you wish for, though — acting upon one’s inner calling can unintentionally elevate you to a bigger stage. Here, the imposter ends up operating in a new, often frightening, stratosphere. Managers and directors landing a C-suite role are often familiar with this feeling. As a CEO client explained, “We leave others behind on Planet Earth, and fail to believe we are deserved of the stellar position we have landed.” Neil Armstrong is also reported to have been plagued with imposterism!

Cultural and environmental pressures. We are born into an aspirational world, where ambitious and narcissistic parents often put their children on a pedestal. Our validation is based on success and results, rather than the endeavor that inspired the outcome in the first place. We subsequently lose the feeling of being grounded and can start to develop an inflated and false sense of self. Later on in the workplace, this results in the psychological discomfort of feeling fraudulent and can lead to perfectionism and anxiety.

The free market’s obsession with commercial results, the modern-day currency for human achievement, has also made imposter syndrome endemic. “I achieve, therefore I am” seems a slogan for the successful modern-day executive. The problem is that the higher we climb, the more removed we become from our essential self.

Here lies the fundamental problem. Imposter syndrome is the result of a disconnection between ego and self: human doing, not human be-ing. Ego becomes the false self, the imposter, while the real self is left in exile.

What Can You Do About It?

Coaching and personal reflection and behavioral change can play a big part in reversing the feeling of being an imposter. The good news is that all of this shines a light on the human qualities required for modern-day leadership.

Self-reflect. Create space for self-reflection. “Who am I?” Get to know the gap between what you do and who you really are: “I am myself, not a CEO.” You’ve become a CEO because of everything that makes you, you. This includes your physical self, your culture and influences (good and bad), your relationships, your learning and transformation and your hopes and dreams.

Do body work. Imposter syndrome is in your head and can be helped if you bring the center of consciousness into your body, away from the fantasy of what you think you should — and are failing to — be! Mindfulness, meditation, walking in nature, qigong, yoga, bioenergetics and sports can all provide expanded physical awareness.

Fill the performance gap. Actually, you are a fraud! You are programmed to play too hard to your key strengths, which leaves the rest of you behind. This is the psychological blind spot that Erica Fox describes so eloquently in Winning from Within. Your trump cards have propelled you forward through your professional career, but you may play to them too heavily. Your talent has been a sword helping you win greater battles, but in so doing, you may have abandoned the other parts that make you feel real. Work with a coach or other trusted advisor and use all your compass points to best effect.

Be the humble beginner. As a leader and senior executive, you are expected to be an expert — you should have all the answers, especially given your status. But in an uncertain age where there are no answers, how can you reframe your view of yourself? In a world where knowledge and learning are unlimited, can you let go of the need to be right and enjoy the power of co-creation and the collective wisdom of your team? Embrace a beginner’s curiosity, and let go of the idea that being top-of-the-tree is the road to feeling real.

Celebrate endeavor, not results. Change your mindset from chasing success and recognition to celebrating learning and endeavor. Throw away your ego’s résumé — instead, keep a journal noting your personal journey of growth and transformation. This might include a diary of physical sensations, time spent in nature and reflections on your human connection.


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