Impostor Syndrome – How the best (and worst) leaders cope

I am an ambitious, confident, strong female leader and I have dealt with impostor syndrome in my career. To the millions of women, early in their careers, wondering if it ever gets better, and if you can beat it… Yes, you can! 

Over the last couple of decades, I have worked with a number of brilliant, talented women leaders. As I have coached them on leadership effectiveness and impact, I have grown increasingly frustrated at the utter lack of actually helpful materials out there. I know, I know, there are millions of articles on Impostor Syndrome, hypothesizing on the reasons and symptoms, and how women should overcome it by ‘observing’ the thought, talking about their feelings, separating feelings from fact, visualizing success, and endless similarly passive stuff. Seriously?!! It is almost as if they have never actually seen a woman leader in her workplace! It blows my mind that in 2020, we still write about Impostor Syndrome as if we are victims of it, and use these purely ‘talk-to-yourself’ type of passive coping mechanisms. We are not! And we don’t! 

Every woman leader who has progressed in her career has done so by competitively leading organizations and delivering results. The real question is : What are the coping mechanisms we use at work? What is working for us, and what is not? How do the best leaders (and the worst) cope? 

What is at the heart of the Impostor Syndrome?

Millions of articles split hairs about what is impostor syndrome, and position it as fear of success, fear of failure, perfectionism, perhaps just a little ‘intellectual self doubt’, but won’t go any further than that. Dancing around the issue isn’t helping us. 

As I have grown as a leader myself, and as I’ve coached hundreds of other leaders, I’ve learnt that you cannot grow unless someone holds up a mirror. So, please bear with me, as I try and do that for you.

At the very core of the impostor syndrome is self doubt, … and insecurity. This arises from 2 gut wrenching questions – (a) Am I good enough? and (b) Do I deserve to be here?

The driver for our coping mechanisms 

All our coping mechanisms to deal with impostor syndrome, both constructive and derailing, are driven by the need to achieve 2 outcomes – (a) To help you feel more secure and (b) To blend in and help others feel more comfortable. 

The most fascinating thing about coping mechanisms, as I’ve worked with leaders, is how much these are a part of our daily work lives, and how unaware we are of it. These behaviors develop over time, and live in our sub conscious. 

The coping mechanisms that aren’t working for us are:

Not being ourselves @ work

We ARE all of our scars, bumps and bruises. They shape us. They make us unique. When we don’t bring our whole selves to work, we are actively preventing people from getting to know us, and that impacts trust. 

Many years ago, I worked with an LGBTQ leader who I admired. They felt uncomfortable being out @ work, whilst being fulfilled and happy in their home life. I cannot even begin to imagine the burden they had to bear, an inspiring leader not being able to inspire other LGBTQ colleagues and help them find their voice. Already a force to be reckoned with, and quite unstoppable, were they just trying to blend in, or were they fearful of their infinite potential and the impact they could have, as one of the eminent voices of our time? If they could find it in themselves to embrace who they are, they would be a beacon of hope for so many others who are living compartmentalized lives and wondering if they will make it.

Craving control 

Sometimes leaders can correlate feeling secure with having control. This leads us down the path of:

Command and control leadership style: Leaders struggle with a lack of trust, and find it difficult to empower and delegate to their teams, and in the process, end up isolating themselves and exacerbating their feelings of loneliness and insecurity, creating a vicious cycle. It is heartbreaking to see a leader caught in the throes of this vicious cycle, thinking they are in control, when they are not.

I, me, myself: We are increasingly stuck when we think about ourselves as the center of the ecosystem, and we are constantly circling around the question; What will others think? It is paralyzing. It manifests itself in many ways from unnecessary displays of the hero complex where leaders may position themselves as saviors who swept in to save the day, claiming credit for the team’s work, or using ‘I’ excessively, where it may come across as though the world revolves around us, or the laser focus on our own needs. This is not sustainable and alienates our team.

Surrounding ourself with ‘Yes people’ : Leaders think they are enrolling allies, but in reality, end up with a coterie of ‘Yes people’, who primarily care about themselves. It has the opposite effect and ends up isolating us from people who truly care about the business and people, and distances us from the realities of the business.

Confirmation bias : Leaders can sometimes become very myopic, under pressure. Some leaders only have ears for data and information that validates their opinions, and they summarily discount everything else. Yes, it is exactly as dangerous as it sounds. 

Becoming a ‘character’

This is one of the most common, fairly effective (at least in the short term) coping mechanisms we use. In order to gain acceptance, many leaders carve out a place for themselves by playing a character, from being the class clown, jokester, to being ‘one of the boys’, or ‘damsel in distress’, from being life of the party, to being the mother ‘hen’. It makes us feel wanted, and in the short term, it helps us get things done and be effective. However, it has limited runway and is not sustainable.

As endearing as it is, it reduces our effectiveness in the long run, and potentially impacts our positioning in relation to our peers, and makes it much more difficult to be a leader among peers, or to become the manager for the same peers.

Self preservation 

Leaders sometimes regress to destructive or derailing behaviors, when under immense pressure, and operate in survival mode. These can range from negative self talk, too much emotional investment, inability to let go, persecution complex, and being manipulative to get their way. In particularly severe cases, it manifests in 4 destructive forms:

Eliminating perceived threats : Leaders afflicted with the most severe forms can adopt a ‘slash and burn’ approach, and vindictively go after people who don’t agree with them, or those who could be contenders for their role.

Divide and conquer : Leaders using this approach are fundamentally divisive. They try to eliminate opposition by turning the team against one another and destroy trust in the team. They spread gossip, rumors and false information to achieve this.

Extreme politics : These leaders manage up beautifully, while treating their teams poorly. They achieve their personal goals through manipulation and politics. 

Fight or flight response : Leaders under a great deal of pressure, can respond with significant aggression or complete avoidance and denial. Both extremes are used by insecure leaders. They are either constantly looking for a fight, for a chance to prove their dominance, or burying their head in the sand to avoid dealing with reality, for as long as they can. 

Self deprecating humor

This is a tricky one, because humor is good, and self deprecating humor is even better…usually. It helps break the ice, get the team to be participative and provide honest feedback, be creative, and relieve stress. When overused, it is jarring and has the nails on a chalkboard effect. You cross the line between being authentic and manipulative, or you cross the line between being a secure leader to questioning your own credibility without meaning to. 

Softening our message and Over apologizing

We tend to soften our message, and apologize randomly in an effort to make others feel more comfortable, but also to blend in, and avoid standing out as a lightning bolt for controversy. We run the danger of being so soft, or making a point so obtusely or generically, that we miss it altogether!

I wrote my first article 20 years ago. Never published it (it was terrible!). I recently found it, and was aghast! There were as many qualifying words as there were actual words. I could not figure out the point of view of the article or what it was trying say! 

The coping mechanisms that the best leaders use, and are constructive:

Find your True North

Leaders who have a clear personal purpose and clear leadership brand, stand out like a bright light. Their aura and vibe attracts others who are willing to sign up for adventure. It is the equivalent of putting a stake in the ground and standing up for our self. Living our purpose, and our leadership brand in every interaction we have, is the best way to build self worth and confidence. 

Be a Servant leader

The power of teams is the most amazing phenomenon in an organization. When we make it all about the team, the journey and the outcome we are striving for, and not about ourselves, it is liberating. When we trust our team, we are not obsessed with control, and can delegate more effectively, foster creativity, inspire, energize and unlock hidden potential.

Discover the Humor in the everyday

Humor is a really effective weapon in this battle, for your own sanity and others’. Not taking ourselves too seriously, and judging ourselves generously and seeing the funny side of things, is a gift. Use with caution!

Build trust and relationships

Being able to have meaningful relationships at work, having a close inner circle or a team that will tell you like it is, being able to seek feedback without judgment, and being able to feel like you have your team’s trust and that your team has your back, is worth striving for.

Welcome feedback

Leaders are open to feedback, but not obsessed by it. Feedback is a gift. It is equally important, for your sanity, that you analyze the feedback for patterns, correlation with your purpose and brand, and vet it with those you trust. When we are able to find meaning in the diversity, complexity and volume of feedback we get, and commit to working on it, it helps us grow as leaders and be more effective 

Be vulnerable

Vulnerability is a strength. The key to building trust is to let people get to know us, see our scars and bumps and bruises, and understand how they have shaped us. The core of trust is understanding our intentions and our motivations. Being transparent goes a long way.

Help others

Coaching leaders has helped them, but it has also helped me. Every time we reach out to help, it tells us a little more about ourselves. Seeing the positive impact of our help, serves as a guiding light for us. 

Be optimistic

Having a positive vision of the future and being able to wake up in the morning and strive to achieve that goal, or fulfill that aspiration, that helps you get closer to your purpose, is a very powerful motivator. 

Do you use any of these or other coping mechanisms? What has worked for you? Share your experiences in the comments section.

If you find this article interesting, pls do ‘like’ and ‘share’ with your network.

P.S. Studies show that 70% of people are impacted by Impostor Syndrome. It affects everyone. While this article is a little skewed towards women, the coping mechanisms certainly apply to a much broader population. 


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