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Leadership

Fake it though you’ve made it: battling leader impostorism

Published 18 January 2022 in Leadership • 9 min read

Successful, but feeling like a fraud? You’re not alone, it’s an emotion  shared by the great and the good from Michelle Obama to Jacinda Ardern. Here’s how to tackle it. 

 

Are you a leader? Then you’ve probably felt like an imposter. And the evidence suggests that you are far from alone. Leader impostorism is an experience that results from a leader’s belief that who they are — their attributes, experiences, and skills — is not enough for their leadership role. For this reason, these leaders are likely to believe that they are occupying the role under false pretenses and could, at any point, be “found out”.  

The popular press contains a growing chorus of highly prominent leaders who describe this experience, from Alexa Chung (designer), to David Metzler (CEO of CBD Capital Group), Michelle Obama (attorney, former First Lady), and Ricky Joshi (CEO of the Saatva company). Even Jacinda Ardern, (main picture) who was re-elected as prime minister of New Zealand and has maintained historically high levels of popular support, has said: “I have on many occasions thought, ‘I cannot do that because it’s me’. Impostor syndrome is real.”  

Importantly, this experience is not limited to the great and good. In our own consultancy work, we have been approached by leaders from all organizational levels who have told us about their sense of impostorism and the very real challenges this has created for them.   

Intrigued about this phenomenon and desiring a better understanding of what leaders and organizations can do about it, we set out to investigate it.  

 

Why are leaders prone to impostorism? 

At a superficial level, it may be hard to understand why leaders would experience a sense of impostorism in their roles. After all, there are few more powerful symbols of a person’s success, or indeed of their perceived suitability for leadership, than their appointment to a leadership role. We believe that the root of these impostorism experiences is the nature of the contemporary leadership role. As Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Venture Capital fund Adreessen Horowitz, has said, being a “CEO is a very unnatural job”. We suggest that there are three reasons why those who occupy leadership role are particularly prone to feeling like imposters:

1 The leadership spotlight. Leaders are highly visible, which makes every action more conspicuous and every mistake harder to hide. 

2 Big shoes to fill. When people step into a leadership role, they may feel as though they have to live up to the legacy of their predecessors. Whether or not they have internalized the belief that leaders are extraordinary, heroic, or even larger than life, they will be aware that others look up to leaders and have high expectations of them. These high standards and expectations increase the weight of the responsibilities and expectations associated with the role. 

3 It is lonely at the top. Leaders may be more isolated and have less social support to deal with their pressure. When taking on a leadership role, you may be the envied, “chosen one” among your peers, who may have also vied for the role. You may therefore struggle to receive the social support that you need.  

Together, then, these make the leadership role highly daunting; one that exposes leaders to high expectations from organizational members, high levels of responsibility, high visibility, and relative isolation. In the light of this, it is not surprising that many leaders feel they do not measure up and are impostors in their role.  

Poised and elegant, but even Michelle Obama sometimes doubts herself

Why organizations need to tackle leader impostorism 

Leader impostorism experiences are highly personal, and because they are associated with a sense of vulnerability, may be difficult for leaders to share. Nonetheless, it is important that organizations understand and seek to contend with this phenomenon because it is likely to impact leader’s role performance and well-being.  

First, feeling like a “fake” who does not fit the leader role, is likely to have a highly taxing emotional effect. Individuals who feel they are impostors experience shame and fear. Leader impostorism experiences are likely to be accompanied by perceptions of imminent threats in the form of failure, negative social evaluation, and discovery of one’s lack of capability (i.e., not able to meet the requirements and expectations). These threats are likely to elicit feelings of fear. Furthermore, leaders who experience impostorism are likely to suffer from shame as a result of their belief that they “do not have what is needed” to meet the role expectations and that they are phony and fraudulent toward the organization and its members. Shame is a self-condemning moral emotion that arises when an individual perceives that they have violated moral standards.  

This can further lead to emotional depletion of cognitive resources and emotional exhaustion as a result of persistent feelings of impostorism, that will curtail their work performance. Individuals who experience an ongoing sense of impostorism are likely to engage in mentally taxing cognitive processes and behaviors, such as rumination, to be preoccupied with what others think of them, and to engage in behaviors aimed at managing others’ impressions of them. In the context of the complexities, challenges and responsibilities of a leadership role this depletion of mental resources may be particularly harmful.  

Another major consequence is that leaders may experience difficulty claiming leadership and thriving in their leadership roles. They may experience a reduced motivation to lead and little ambition to advance. This is because fear and shame are likely to fuel the desire to “hide” leadership achievements and shy away from leadership opportunities. The shame associated with impostor feelings (for occupying a role despite being unworthy) and the fear of being “found out” can motivate the leader to “hide” or disappear or even engage in self-destructive behaviors. Therefore, a leader who experiences impostorism is likely to shy away from, or sabotage, leadership opportunities and advancement for fear of exposure and negative evaluation. 

Last, leaders feeling like impostors are likely to limit their risk-taking behaviors and to invest extra effort in their work. Fear of failure and subsequent exposure as an impostor may directly reduce a leader’s willingness to engage in risk-taking and encourage a less impulsive and more calculated approach to decision-making. Consistent with this possibility, there is evidence that people who experience impostorism can show perfectionist tendencies, including an exaggerated concern over making mistakes. While refraining from taking risks can be beneficial in some circumstances, there may be others, like fast, unpredictable and growing markets, that require risk-taking. However, in contexts where leaders are not equally exposed to the benefits and costs of risky decisions — especially contexts where leaders benefit personally from “wins” while the organization bears the costs of “losses”— a shift toward less-risky decision-making is likely to be broadly beneficial.  

Individuals may work harder in an attempt to compensate for their perceived lack of aptitude and to alleviate their feelings of shame over their perceived fraudulence and fear of exposure

These leaders are also likely to invest extra effort in work, which may have organizationally beneficial consequences. Leaders experiencing impostorism may be highly motivated to ensure they perform to the “extraordinary” role expectations of a leader. For example, these individuals may work harder in an attempt to compensate for their perceived lack of aptitude and to alleviate their feelings of shame over their perceived fraudulence and fear of exposure. Indeed, there is evidence that self-conscious emotions, such as shame, motivate people to work hard toward achievement. Moreover, people experiencing shame are found to facilitate exemplification behaviors (e.g., arriving early, leaving late, self-sacrificial behavior, dedication, and hard work) in order to manage their shame and signal to people around them that they are worthy. Leaders experiencing leader impostorism will likewise attempt to show exemplary leader behaviors, driving up their perceived in-role performance. Although this may contribute in positive ways to the leader and organizational outcomes, there is also the potential that this could spiral into the “leader impostor vicious cycle”, leading managers in leadership roles to attribute their success to the fact that they have exerted extra effort rather than to their own capabilities. This cycle may sustain the feelings leaders’ impostorism, increasing the risk of the negative consequences described above.  

 

What triggers leader impostor experiences?  

Traditional approaches to experiences of impostorism (and the impostor syndrome) have tended to consider it a characteristic of the individual. However, our focus on the nature of the leadership role, supported by more and more work, suggests that leader impostorism experiences are a product of the environment, and not a flaw in personality. This means that, many people, when placed in a leadership role, are susceptible to experiences of impostorism. At the same time, our review of the literature suggests that there are several individual, relational and organizational factors that are especially likely to trigger leader impostorism experiences. Here we highlight a few key factors, as well as what can be done to counter them. 

1 Being new, or newly promoted: the new person in town. Stepping up? Being new in a role may lessen leaders’ sense of leadership identity and their efficacy, leading newly promoted individuals to feel more like impostors. As individuals gain more experience in their role and have a stronger sense of efficacy their experience of impostorism is likely to lessen.   

How to address this: When you kick off a new role, anticipate that you’re likely to experience this, so it doesn’t come as a surprise. Focus on visible small and early wins that can demonstrate your competence (to yourself!). Organizations should be aware this is a sensitive time for impostorism and give support at this stage. Organizations should ensure that leaders are treated well, and have opportunities for training and experimentation. Where this is supported, leaders will be able to gain confidence in their role and in their leadership efficacy, and the negative cycle of impostorism will be broken.

2 Relational triggers: having few role models or sponsors. Do you see yourself among your peers? Do you feel as though there is no one who has taken you under their wing (i.e., a sponsor)? Do you feel as though the leaders you are familiar with are too different from yourself to be relevant role models for you? Maybe you work in a company with few exemplary representatives of who you are and of how to manage the challenges and tasks associated with your role. Sponsors and role models help bridge the gap between how you see yourself today and being able to see yourself as a future leader. 

How to address this: Search your networks for leaders who share key characteristics with you, and ask them about their leadership journey. Organizations should look to build rich mentoring networks for their leaders so that leaders can build a richer and more realistic understanding of what a good leader looks like. In this way, organizations can create a broader schema of who may occupy a leadership role.  

3 Organizational culture triggers: How inclusive is your culture? How competitive is it? Are you the only woman, or minority in the role? Certain organizational cultures can exacerbate the reverence associated with the leadership role. In organizations where there are big status gaps between leaders and subordinates and when there is less interdependence between leaders and subordinates, it can make it challenging for you to see yourself as capable of fulfilling the leadership role. Also, if you are the only woman or minority in the role and the leaders in your organization come from very different backgrounds than yours (culturally, professionally or otherwise), then you are more likely to feel as though you don’t fit the role. This is because people tend to build cognitive schemas of “what a leader is” around the things they see real-life leaders do and the types of people they have encountered in these roles. When leaders in your organization don’t act or look like yourself, it’s harder to apply that schema and title to yourself.  

How to address this: organizations should work to create an inclusive work climate, that can emphasize the value in integrating diverse cultural identities and leveraging the increased insight and skill that such diversity can bring.  

Leadership impostorism is malleable and shaped by the environment and organizations. Thus, organizations can tackle this and limit the taxing experience of impostorism by being aware of this phenomenon and how common it is, as well as by changing the system to address this.  

Authors

Ronit Kark

Ronit Kark is a professor of leadership and organization studies at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. And at the School of Business, Exeter University, UK. She founded in BIU the Gender in the Field graduate program for social activism. She is a Senior Editor of the Leadership Quarterly and received the Academy of Management Award for Scholarly Contributions to Advancing Women in Leadership. Ronit studies leadership and its interplay with gender, creativity, identities at work and play. She is the owner of a consultancy firm that works with a verity of business organizations and managers and is an Academic Nomad, traveling internationally to give keynote presentations and guest lectures and consultancy on leadership topics.  

Alyson Meister - IMD Professor

Alyson Meister

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD

Alyson Meister is a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD Business School in Switzerland. Specializing in the development of globally oriented, adaptive, and inclusive organizations, she has worked with thousands of executives, teams, and organizations from professional services to industrial goods and technology. Her research has been widely published, and in 2021, she was recognized as a Thinkers50 Radar thought leader. She is Director of the Future Leaders program. She also serves as co-chair of One Mind at Work’s Scientific Advisory Committee, where she focuses on advancing mental health in the workplace. Follow her on Twitter: @alymeister.

Kim Peters

Kim Peters is an organizational psychologist who currently holds the position of Professor in Management at the University of Exeter Business School. She explores how people’s perceptions of self and other fuel their motivation to lead and follow. Her work has been published in leading journals in social and organizational psychology, including Journal of Management, The Leadership Quarterly, Psychological Science, Psychological Bulletin, and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Her work has applied implications (for leadership, diversity, wellbeing at work) and she has written a number of articles and reports for non-academic audiences (e.g., European Parliament, Harvard Business Review and British Medical Journal Careers).  

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