Five Ways CEOs Can Conquer Imposter Syndrome

It's not often talked about, but it's a malady that can creep up on any leader: the feeling that you are faking it—and you will be found out. Five strategies to slay the beast.

After years of working incredibly hard, building a terrific career, and finally finding yourself in the top seat, you are ambushed. It may creep up on you. Or it may hit you all at once. You develop the very debilitating feeling that you don’t deserve your success. You think that you are not actually equipped to lead. You believe you are faking it—and you will be found out.

This grim self-assessment is not based in fact, but the feeling is all too real. It’s called imposter syndrome, and it affects as many as a third of high achievers—men and women, regardless of age, race or ethnicity. The symptoms are powerful but unwarranted feelings of fraud accompanied by anxiety and terror of exposure. The most vulnerable are those who already struggle with issues of perfectionism or who faced intense academic pressure during childhood. Victims are, in fact, the strivers and high achievers—hardly frauds—yet they attribute their success to anything other than their own talent and hard work. It was all a matter of luck, good timing, or the contributions of others, they insist to themselves. And the more others hold them in high esteem, the worse it gets.

The most pernicious feature of imposter syndrome is how it chips away at your confidence and thus degrades your performance as a leader. Unchecked, it can limit your ability to navigate problems, prompt you to procrastinate, and create the kind of self-doubt that produces bad decisions. Something as essential as effectively communicating with customers or investors can seem a difficult task.

 A Case in Point—Me

Imposter syndrome hit me late in my career. But I’m living proof that it can be overcome.

After founding and running my own company for almost a quarter-century, I finally decided to sell it to another firm. As part of the transaction, I gave up my role as CEO—something I was quite ready to relinquish—and traded it for a position as leader of a division in my acquirer’s company. That unit was, in fact, bigger than my own company, staffed by many people who were, of course, strangers to me.

While I had mentally prepared myself for the size of my new team, I wasn’t ready for the accolades, celebrity-like reception, and enormous expectations that met me. These people think way too highly of me, I thought. I’m not nearly as fantastic as they are making me out to be.

I recall being in a meeting with a prospect and feeling so unconfident that I could hardly even introduce myself. My growing self-awareness of this feeling made me sink even deeper. At the time, I knew nothing of imposter syndrome, but that is exactly what it was. Determined to overcome the awful feeling and reclaim my confidence, I did some research and I also reached into myself. I emerged with five strategies to help me get that nasty little green man, the imposter, off my back. Let me share them with you.

• Thinking vs feeling. To stop feeling like an imposter, you first need to stop thinking like one. You need to rewire your mindset. Recognize, reflect upon, assess, and appreciate your very real achievements. More important, review how you achieved them. Inventory and admire them but do not compare them to the achievements of anyone else. Measure your own accomplishments, not anyone else’s. Now, write them all down and then read them out loud. Better yet, record them and listen to yourself. This simple exercise is self-affirming even as it confirms the true success of your track record.

• Teach. Nothing fills me up more than talking with a group of students. Eager to learn, as they step out into the business world, they are grateful for almost anything I can share with them. The experience makes me realize that my answers to their questions are genuinely valuable. They are the products of genuine achievement, not fakery. Teaching—giving back—resets your self-perception. You suddenly recognize the legitimacy of your leadership.

Seek out mentors. True mentors tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. They are people you can trust to advise you on any problem or situation, without judging you. Talking with someone you admire, who has been in your shoes, and who likely experienced how you feel, may be just the shot of reality needed to purge the imposter from your system. After even a few minutes with the right mentor, you begin to realize that, no, you haven’t lost your mojo. Your feelings are quite normal, and you are not alone in experiencing them. Plus, you will likely get some practical advice to deal with difficult issues of the moment.

• Visualization and acting. Psychologists call it visualization. I call it watching myself in my own movie. Preparing for an important meeting, I pre-visit the scene as the director of a movie in which I play the starring role. I picture how I want to see myself and how I want the scene to play out. Visualization is related to “acting as if,” a therapeutic technique introduced in the 1920s by renowned psychotherapist Alfred Adler and now widely used in modern cognitive behavioral therapy. In visualizing, simply “act as if ” you are the person you want to be. Soon, you may indeed, feel like that person.

• Seek information. Beating back imposter syndrome requires converting unknowns to knowns. Ask questions: Who will be in the meeting?  What exactly is the problem that needs to be solved? What issues are at stake? What is the goal? We tend to fill the unknown with our doubts and fears. But the more information you get, the more likely you are to say, “Hey, I’ve seen this before. I know how it’s going to play out. I’ve got this.” You may not have all the answers. (Nobody does.) Humility is the great underrated superpower of leadership. It empowers you to ask more questions and thereby get more reality.

In the top seat, you cannot afford to allow anything—including yourself—to hold you back. Take these five steps to tame imposter syndrome and return to your authentic self. With resilience refreshed, go on and lead your business, ready to handle what lies ahead.

Sabrina Horn is an award-winning CEO, C-suite advisor, communications expert, and author. With only $500 and five years of work experience, she founded Horn Group, a public relations firm that for a quarter century, advised thousands of executives and their companies—from the hottest startups to the Fortune 500. She was one of few female CEOs in Silicon Valley in the early 1990s and has always aimed to exemplify authenticity and advise her clients on its merits. She’s written for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Inc., Entrepreneur, Forbes, and CMO.com. She is the author of Make It, Don’t Fake It.