Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Feeling Unworthy Of Success? Focus Elsewhere

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo Headshot
Photo Courtesy of Lisa Lutoff-Perlo
Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, the first woman to lead one of Royal Caribbean Group’s cruise brand lines, paved the way for many others as she achieved transformational financial results. She has some direct advice for those feeling ‘imposter syndrome.’

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, a trailblazing leader in the cruise industry, admits to self-doubt when she became CEO of Celebrity Cruises in 2014, and she understands the complicated reasons women can sometimes feel they aren’t up for the challenge of top leadership. But if you refer to that concern as “imposter syndrome” when you’re talking with her, you’re going to get an earful.

“I want young women to grow up and feel confident in their intelligence,” she said in a conversation leading up to our next Women in Leadership online discussion, Overcoming Imposter Syndrome (join us!), on June 20. “So we need to stop calling it that. We can talk about courage, we can talk about overcoming fear. We can talk about a lot of things. But in my utopia, that term would just go away and we would never mention it again.”

It was that kind of take-action attitude that propelled Lutoff-Perlo to the top echelons of a male-dominated industry. Last year, she transitioned to vice chair, external affairs for Royal Caribbean Group, and she recently became president and CEO of the FIFA World Cup 2026 Miami Host Committee. She is author of the newly released Making Waves: A Woman’s Rise to the Top Using Smarts, Heart, and Courage.

Lutoff-Perlo spoke with Chief Executive about why she hates the term “imposter syndrome,” her best advice for women in leadership and what becoming CEO did for her.

So you’ll be speaking on imposter syndrome…

A term made up by men, I think.

Actually I think it was two female psychologists in the ’70s.

It just perpetuates the idea that women don’t feel like they’re good enough.

It does make it sound a bit like an illness.

All these things drive me crazy.

Tell me why the term bothers you. Isn’t confidence important to success?

I think confidence is very important. Even if you don’t have it, you have to pretend like you do. My book talks about the importance of courage. It takes a lot of courage to do these things. And courage doesn’t mean the absence of fear. It means suppressing it, letting it be healthy, succeeding in spite of it—whether it’s fear that you don’t think you’re good enough, or fear that you’re trying something new and you’re not sure you’ll be successful, or lack of confidence or fear because people make you feel inferior or, for me, being the first woman to do a lot of different things.

Wasn’t that hard?

A lot of the men that I was encountering in these different roles could have easily made me feel a lack of confidence because they were skeptical that I was qualified to do the job that I was given. It takes courage to just disregard that and believe you do belong there or believe you deserve what you’ve got.

Maybe it’s just one more thing that women have to stop talking about so that it doesn’t perpetuate itself. It’s like [work-life] balance. It’s never going to happen. Let’s stop talking about it. Because every time we talk about it, it makes us feel guilty we don’t have it, and we’re never going to have it. So what’s the sense?

“Imposter syndrome,” if we keep talking about it, we’re always going to lack the confidence or feel like we don’t deserve something. That time needs to be over. The only way those things are going to be over is if we as women stop talking about them and stop letting people talk about them.

I don’t think you’re saying to pretend it doesn’t exist exactly, right? It sounds to me like you’re talking about fear, just sort of accepting fear like we all have to—men and women.

Well, I think it’s how you label it. If we continue to label it as an imposter syndrome, yes. Imposter syndrome seems to apply to women mostly. Then women are going to continue this cycle. Young women especially, which I worry about more than me. I’m old enough to not even care about it anymore. But for my 20-something nieces, I don’t want them to know that word.

I want young women to grow up and feel confident in their intelligence. So we need to stop calling it that. We can say something else. We can talk about courage, we can talk about overcoming fear. We can talk about a lot of things. But in my utopia that term would just go away and we would never mention it again.

So reframe it for me.

Develop self-confidence. Imposters are people who aren’t real, right? They’re pretending to be something they’re not. And I don’t think that’s accurate. Imposter syndrome makes people believe that they don’t deserve what they’ve gotten, so they’re either overcompensating in some way, or perhaps aren’t as successful as they could be. They really don’t deserve to be there.

It’s really negative. And I understand it’s based on scientific research and blah, blah, blah. Right. But, since then, hopefully we’ve come a lot further, and maybe we can reframe it with the idea that we should move forward with confidence. We should suppress fear and have courage. Let’s frame it in terms of courage and how important courage is in everything we do, in every decision we make, in every position we have.

You’re speaking from experience. You’ve been a real barrier-breaker. Talk about what that cost and how you navigated the emotional stakes.

One of the chapters in my book is, Be Careful What You Wish For. I wanted to be CEO so badly. I asked for it three times, and I finally got it. And I remember the day I walked in my office, it was December 6th, 2014. And I thought to myself, holy crap [laughs]. Now what do I do? Be careful what you wish for. How are you going to do this? And how are you going to be successful when so many others before you, which, oh, by the way, were all men, weren’t as successful as they probably should have been or wanted to be. But I bet when they walked in there, they didn’t feel like, holy crap, what do I do now. They’re like, yeah, I belong here.

So you know what it’s like—almost everyone on the planet knows what it’s like—to feel doubt. We don’t have to call it imposter syndrome, but yeah. Scared.

Especially when you’re the only woman. The first woman. I mean, I remember feeling it so deeply because everybody was watching, and so many people were counting on me to be successful because I was the first woman to ever do it. I didn’t want to let them down, and I didn’t want to screw it up.

And so that comes with a lot of pressure, and an added level of responsibility. The job itself had a lot of pressure, stress and responsibility. You’re the first woman and everybody is watching to see, is she going to be the last? And then the women are looking at me saying, oh, you finally made it. We made it. We’re so proud. And then, if I screw it up, I let them all down.

A lot of that probably comes with the fact that we still haven’t done as much as we should be doing, and achieved as much as we should be achieving and holding enough of the positions that we deserve. And so, for as long as that exists, maybe this doubt, lack of confidence—whatever you want to call it, it’s going to continue to persist. But the only people that can change a conversation or a narrative are us.

There are some positives to all this, aren’t there? You’re talking about caring about the people who work for you, and that’s not a bad thing. So maybe there’s a level on which this anxiety prompts us to do better.

Sure. I mean, listen, anything that motivates you to do better is good. And I think that women should focus more on the advantages they bring to something versus their fear that they’re not good enough or they don’t deserve it, or they don’t have the confidence or they’re afraid. If we’re going to focus on stereotypes, why don’t we, as women, focus on those characteristics that are positives, our superpowers? Women bring these amazing things to what we do that men don’t typically bring.

Like emotional intelligence?

Collaboration, caring. There are five or six of them that are pretty powerful, that scientists also have proved women typically have in much bigger doses than men.

You’re known for promoting other women. When did you know this issue mattered to you?

I knew it mattered to me in 2005, because I entered operations from the world of sales and marketing. Sales and marketing is extremely gender balanced. I never felt like there were more men than women, fewer men than women. I worked with a ton of men. I worked with a ton of women. It was a very equal environment. And then I went into operations in 2005, and I happened to be in an industry that just has way, way, way, way, way more men than women, especially on the operational side of the business. It wasn’t just leaders, it was everybody.

All my colleagues were men. My boss was a man. When I went on shift, all the leaders were men. All the marine team, all the bridge were men. And they were not only men, they were all one nationality. So yeah, I remember thinking, wow. And I remember that some of the women in the handful or so that had made it, were experiencing things that in the world that I came from were not okay, in terms of how they were spoken to and the things that were said and their ability to advance. I think three percent of the crew on bridges were women. And I just thought, I wonder what I can do to change this. I wonder what impact I can make.

What did you do next?

What I was able to do from 2005 until 2014 was get more women promoted, help the environment for women to be more equal, change some of the behaviors that were not modern as it relates to how genders treat each other, talk to each other.

But the only way I was really able to make progress was when I became CEO. Because then I had the most power, the most influence and actually could make change and surround myself with other people—men who believed in change and more gender balance. And so 2014, when I became CEO, is when I really put that on steroids and hired the first and still only American woman captain in the world of mega ships, Kate McCue.

That’s an impressive achievement for you both.

By the time I stepped down, 34 percent of our bridge teams were women.

Why was that important to you?

I’m a big believer in diversity. I don’t think you can have the best business outcomes, the best financial outcomes, unless you have diversity. Different thinking, a different conversation. It’s been proven time and time again, there’s a lot of research that supports that.

The fact that so many of our crew were women and at the lower level, was critical. And I don’t think it’s different than a lot of companies. If you take a look at the stratification of the levels of people in a company, you probably find more gender balance in the lower levels than you do at the higher levels. The only way that you can change your gender balance at the higher level is if you give all the women at the lower levels an equal opportunity to be successful and get promoted.

So we brought in a captain who was a highly qualified and ready to be captain, but the only way we were able to really improve our gender balance was to hire women cadets from maritime academies and from other cruise brands that knew that we were a much more gender-friendly brand. And then we started seeing the results in our employee engagement, our guest satisfaction, our financial performance. You realize that when you change diversity, you change culture. When you change culture, you change behavior. When you change behavior, people are happier. When you have a happy crew in a happy environment, it makes for happy guests. And when you have happy guests, they’re spending more money. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I just believe that your business outcomes are so much better when you have diversity of thought, diversity of leadership, diversity of culture, diversity of gender. We had a lot of diversity because we had 70 different countries on a ship at any given time.

We’re talking now about all the external things that companies can do, what women in leadership can do to make it better. But there are internal things that go on too. We all struggle with feeling worthy or doubt on some level. So do you have any practical advice?

There’s a quote I like: “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”

At the end of the day, if you really want these things, you have to believe you can. And you have to stop playing all these tapes in your head that are trying to convince you, you can’t. Because again, either way you’re gonna be right.

That’s why I tend to disregard or discard negative connotations around being a woman and what that means. Like balance. Like imposter syndrome. I really try to get rid of those. Because it’s hard enough doing these jobs. I don’t care what gender you are, these are hard jobs. These are hard things to do. The amount of time we have to put in to be successful, to make things work, to lead our teams, to get the results that we’ve been challenged and cast with—that’s all hard.

That is the one piece of advice I would give: Stop feeling guilty, ladies. Number one, it’s self-imposed. And number two, you’re holding yourself back. You’re making something really hard that much harder.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events


    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    Over 70% of Executives Surveyed Agree: Many Strategic Planning Efforts Lack Systematic Approach Tips for Enhancing Your Strategic Planning Process

    Executives expressed frustration with their current strategic planning process. Issues include:

    1. Lack of systematic approach (70%)
    2. Laundry lists without prioritization (68%)
    3. Decisions based on personalities rather than facts and information (65%)


    Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison have put together an afternoon workshop that will provide the tools you need to address these concerns.  They have worked with hundreds of executives to develop a systematic approach that will enable your team to make better decisions during strategic planning.  Steve and Denise will walk you through exercises for prioritizing your lists and steps that will reset and reinvigorate your process.  This will be a hands-on workshop that will enable you to think about your business as you use the tools that are being presented.  If you are ready for a Strategic Planning tune-up, select this workshop in your registration form.  The additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.