CEO Insider

The Impostor In The Boardroom

If you are a CEO or a Director are you concerned that you are going to be ‘found out’? Basically your peers, staff or clients are going to find out that actually you are a ‘fraud’, and it was down to luck and not your skill, knowledge and expertise that has propelled you into the boardroom?

Well, you are not alone. In 2011 a report was published entitled ‘The Impostor Phenomenon’ where it estimated that 70 percent of the U.S. population had experienced what’s known as ‘Impostor Syndrome’.

Basically, Impostor Syndrome it is the experience of feeling like a phony—you feel as though at any moment you are going to be found out as a fraud—like you don’t belong where you are, and you only got there through luck and good fortune.

Sometimes, Impostor Syndrome can fuel feelings of motivation to achieve, this usually comes at a cost in the form of constant anxiety. You might over-prepare or work much harder than necessary to “make sure” that nobody finds out you are a fraud.

This could lead to you being stuck in an “impostor cycle”. Success creates a continuous cycle of self-doubt for people with impostor syndrome. Every time they accomplish something, they become more worried that others will discover the “truth” about their abilities. Individuals with impostor syndrome deny their competency. They often feel that outside factors or chance are behind their successes. They may also believe that they need to work harder than most.

The problem with Impostor Syndrome is that the experience of doing well at something does nothing to change your beliefs. Even though you might sail through a pitch or perform brilliantly in a speech, the thought still nags in your head, “What gives me the right to be here?” The more you accomplish, the more you just feel like a fraud. If you can relate to this then, don’t worry, Entrepreneur revealed that the actor Tom Hanks  Facebook’s, Sheryl Sandberg, musician David Bowie, tennis player Serena Williams, founder of Starbucks Howard Schultz, the civil rights activist, author, poet and Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou, founder of The Huffington Post  Arianna Huffington, musician Lady Gaga and the actress Emma Watson all admit to feeling like frauds in spite of their own achievements and are just waiting to be ‘found out’.

The five imposters

Dr. Valerie Young is an internationally recognized expert on Impostor Syndrome and has three decades of speaking and leading workshops on Impostor Syndrome. She has identified five types of “impostors” that can manifest themselves when you are faced with a variety of situations, challenges and opportunities.  These are:

  1. The expert: The expert will not feel satisfied until they feel that they know everything about the task at hand. Experts continuously hunt for new information, which prevents them from completing tasks and projects. For example, those who avoid applying for a job because they do not meet every requirement may fall into the category of the expert
  2. The perfectionist: People who aim for perfection often experience high levels of anxiety, doubt, and worry, especially when they fail to achieve their extreme goals. Perfectionists are usually dissatisfied with their work. They tend to focus on areas where they could have done better rather than celebrate the things they did well
  3. The natural genius: Natural geniuses are typically able to master a new skill quickly and easily, and they often feel ashamed and weak when they cannot. People who fall into this category fail to recognize that nearly everyone needs to build upon their skills throughout life in order to succeed.
  4. The soloist: The soloist may also be known as the rugged individualist. They prefer to work alone and tend to believe that asking for help will reveal their incompetence. A soloist will typically turn down help so that they can prove their worth as an individual.
  5. The superhero: Superheroes often excel in all areas, mainly because they push themselves so hard. Many workaholics can be classed as superheroes. This overload of work will eventually result in burnout, which can affect physical health, mental well-being, and relationships with others.



Ideas for managing Impostor Syndrome

Young believes that at the keyway to stop feeling like an impostor, is to stop thinking like an impostor. On Young’s website,, she allows people to share a blog post on how to manage your imposter syndrome. And she has developed a 10-step process to help anyone to achieve this.

  1. Break the silence. Shame keeps a lot of people from admitting about their fraudulent feelings. Knowing there’s a name for these feelings and that you are not alone can be tremendously freeing.
  2. Separate feelings from fact. There are times you’ll feel stupid. It happens to everyone from time to time. Realize that just because you may feel stupid, doesn’t mean you are.
  3. Recognize when you should feel fraudulent. If you’re one of the first or the few women or a minority in your field or workplace, it’s only natural you’d sometimes feel like you don’t totally fit in. Instead of taking your self-doubt as a sign of your ineptness, recognise that it might be a normal response to being an outsider.
  4. Accentuate the positive. Perfectionism can indicate a healthy drive to excel. The trick is to not obsess over everything being just so. Do a great job when it matters most, without persevering over routine tasks. Forgive yourself when the inevitable mistake happens.
  5. Develop a new response to failure and mistake making. Henry Ford once said, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” Instead of beating yourself up for being human and blowing the big project, do what professional athletes do and glean the learning value from the mistake and move on.
  6. Right the rules. If you’ve been operating under misguided rules like, “I should always know the answer,” or “Never ask for help” start asserting your rights. Recognize that you have just as much right as the next person to be wrong, have an off-day, or ask for assistance.
  7. Develop a new script. Your script is that automatic mental tapes that starts playing in situations that trigger your Impostor feelings. When you start a new job or project instead of thinking for example, “Wait till they find out I have no idea what I’m doing,” try thinking, “Everyone who starts something new feels off-base in the beginning. I may not know all the answers but I’m smart enough to find them out.”
  8. Visualize success. Do what professional athletes do. Spend time beforehand picturing yourself making a successful presentation or calmly posing your question in class. It sure beats picturing impending disaster and will help with performance-related stress.
  9. Reward yourself. Break the cycle of continually seeking and then dismissing validation outside of yourself by learning to pat yourself on the back.
  10. Fake it ‘til you make it. Now and then we all have to fly by the seat of our pants. Instead of considering “winging it” as proof of your ineptness, learn to do what many high achievers do and view it as a skill. The point of the worn-out phrase, fake it till you make it, still stands: Don’t wait until you feel confident to start putting yourself out there. Courage comes from taking risks. Change your behaviour first and allow your confidence to build.

So, if you suffer from Imposter Syndrome, then put into place Youngs 10-step process and  importantly, remember this. Yes, luck has played a part what you have achieved so far. That does not make you a fraud. Whatever success you have achieved it is also, in part down to your hard work, effort, talents and commitment.

Yes, like every single person, you have had some ’breaks’ that went your way. Start accepting and embracing what you have achieved so far in your life. You are not a phoney but just be grateful and feel inspired to build on that success.

—- Written by Neil Francis.

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Neil Francis
Author of Inspired Thinking, Positive Thinking (LID Publishing, 2019) and The Entrepreneur’s Book (LID Publishing, 2018), Neil Francis has extensive experience as a chairman, CEO, and director of many companies. Currently he is the Chairman of a digital agency, director of an internet company, as well as a consultancy and a social enterprise. Neil Francis is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD Magazine. He can be found on LinkedIn and via his website.