Struggling with insecurity on the inside, even when you seem confident on the outside, is a common battle for leaders today.
When are they going to realize that I’m a complete fraud? That’s a secret, lurking question that haunts even the most successful entrepreneurs all the time. For some people, private questions sound more like: What if I’m not the right person to do this job? o What if I don’t have what it takes and end up failing?
Doubts have a different echo in people, but the effect is so common that psychologists have given it the name “imposter syndrome”. This all-too-common phenomenon sets up a psychological pattern of doubting one’s ability to achieve, while elevating the abilities of others, and results in an internalized fear that everyone will eventually see you really a fraud.
Impostor Syndrome Among Leaders
This belief that luck—not achievement, talent, or qualifications—is the reason for a person’s success was first diagnosed as a syndrome in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D. Since then, researchers have been able to uncover more about the phenomenon, learning that it affects both men and women equally and does not discriminate between job titles. It slips into the new intern’s cubicle, as well as the C-suite corner offices alike.
It’s natural to assume that these nagging feelings of unworthiness can plague the average worker just starting out at a new company, or even chalk up the famous “jitters” or inexperience. But why do executives who had worked their way up the ladder of success with great skill and proven results feel unqualified or unworthy of their high-ranking job title?
Executive leaders are not superhuman nor do they have to be
The answer to this question begins with the mental image most of us subconsciously have of what it takes to be a CEO: a tall, charismatic, visionary leader with credentials from top universities who possesses a keen focus while taking action. quick decisions. But add gender and racial bias to all those unique characteristics, and the result is a CEO pigeonholed into a role that very few people could play. This is the abrasive, well-dressed hero seen in unlikely movie plots who save the company at the last moment against all odds: a fantasy, but nowhere near reality.
The expectations of this type of CEO are enough to make the average CEO, even one with a portfolio full of awards, brilliant profit margins, and letters of recommendation, question their capabilities.
“Experience is cumulative. We all make bad decisions at some point in life. Leaders get up, dust themselves off and move quickly. Your organization depends on it.” – Jere Thompson, Jr., Co-Founder and CEO of Ambit Energy
The fears that resonate in the minds of those who sit at the head of the table are not very different from the fears that haunt the people who denounce them. Underachieving, coming across as foolish or too vulnerable, and being politically attacked by high-level co-workers are the result of a 2014 Harvard Business Review study. The aftershocks of these fears, however, had a compounding impact due to his rank and were shown to create a ripple effect throughout the organization. As CEOs became overly cautious or took risks to try to offset their concerns,
But the final fear presented by the CEOs in this study is one that provides an ideal catalyst for developing and fostering an unhealthy struggle with imposter syndrome: the fear of being incompetent.
Aren’t these fears natural?
Before leading the multi-billion dollar Ambit Energy empire as Co-Founder and CEO, Jere Thompson, Jr. remembers being plagued by nagging doubts about his own abilities. “When I started my first company and was told that the initial critical financial commitment had been approved, I was absolutely terrified,” says Thompson. “I couldn’t fall asleep that first night, and I was wide awake, bathed in a cold sweat, fearing that I might fail. I had never run a company in my life, let alone a company that had started from scratch.”
And you are not alone. Struggling with insecurity on the inside, even when you appear confident on the outside, is a common battle for people who hold the highest authority in their organizations.
“I have absolutely struggled with this, and many of my friends who are involved in the industry have shared that they have at some point in their careers as well,” says Team National President and CEO Angela Loehr Chrysler . “I think it’s a normal aspect of life to worry about those you lead. As directors, our decisions can affect thousands of people who trust and believe in our company, our mission and our product.”
However, as the study found, it’s not fear that makes a leader ineffective. In fact, according to an article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, 70 percent of people experience impostor feelings at some point. Most executives even see fear as a natural part of leading or taking a business to the next level.
“The more I learn, listen, read, study and work on my own leadership, the more confidence and wisdom I have for myself, to draw on when needed.” – Angela Loehr Chrysler, President and CEO of Team National
Fear may have haunted them at times, but as successful CEOs in the industry, Thompson and Loehr Chrysler have shown that fears did not overcome them, nor did they negatively impact their companies, as would someone with a true impostor. So how did they face their fears and come out on top? What actions did they take to forcefully reject their insecurities, to build and lead thriving and profitable organizations? While it would be wise to consider the traits they possess and the habits they practice, the behaviors and characteristics they avoid are just as important.
Symptoms that lead to ineffective leadership
Among people with intense feelings of fraud, imposter syndrome expert Valerie Young found a pattern of predictable beliefs and behaviors that prevented them from truly effective leadership. Impostors expected perfection, set almost unreasonable expectations, and then simply drowned in blatant failure, dwarfed by their own seeming incompetence. They hesitated to make some decisions, requiring each data point before they could make a decision for fear that they would be seen as stupid if they made the wrong determination. They urgently needed to complete tasks on their own merits, without asking for help and often outdid their groupmates in an ironic effort to show that they were not charlatans.
When asked how it differs from great executives like him, CEO Jere Thompson responded with the phrase, “Leaders must lead,” Thompson said. “Leaders must make quick decisions, set and execute priorities, attract and retain great people, delegate, determine and live the values of the organization. Because you should know that you’re not going to be okay all the time.”
The Successful CEO: It’s Not What You Think
The brilliant CEO on the cover of magazines fuels the imposter syndrome mentality, but of course, it’s not necessarily a reality. The Harvard Business Review addressed these misconceptions in its ten-year study of what specific attributes distinguish the successful CEO (defined as one who exceeds the expectations of board members and mainstream investors) in a program that was called the “CEO Genome Project.” ”. What the researchers found was how they dismantled the common herd that many executives struggling with imposter syndrome have internalized.
“The willingness to act on ideas and decisions are the most important assets that effective executives bring to the table.”
Although board members tended to initially gravitate toward the extroverted leader, the CEO Genome Project found that successful directors were often introverts. The study further showed that charisma would allow them to be selected for a big promotion or a new hire, but alone they could not determine longevity. And an elite education? The study found that only 7 percent of successful CEOs had an Ivy League pedigree, and in fact, 8 percent of the people tested had no college degree at all. Virtually all of the leaders in the study had made big mistakes in the past, and nearly half of them said their biggest mistake was so serious that it cost them a previous job or created a financial hit for the company.
It turns out that successful leaders are not perfect. They don’t necessarily possess a magnetic personality, nor do they stand out as the most educated person in the room. And yet, there is something special about the CEOs in this study, and the leaders who were interviewed, that set them apart from their peers. So what is the key to unlocking your propensity for success?
High-performance actions and habits
There is no magic bullet to transforming someone into a high-performing CEO who is loved by all board members and company shareholders alike. However, there are some crucial habits and actions that successful CEOs commonly exhibit that avoid feelings of cheating and build organizations that will confidently follow and collaborate alongside their leader.
In business as in all kinds of relationships, trust is essential. That’s why three-quarters of CEOs rated successful in the CEO Genome Project study rate highly on organization and planning. By creating a rhythm of meetings, accountability structures, and tracking methods to measure performance, these CEOs were compulsively consistent in meeting all their commitments. When it comes to leadership, delivering on time, every time, really matters more.
“I’m boringly consistent,” says Thompson. “I’ve always been pretty good at making lists, prioritizing, focusing work, and then completing tasks. I’ve tried to be the same person through the good times and the bad, and it doesn’t matter who I’m with,” she noted.
Successful CEOs delegate and work well with other group members, but also know how to maintain momentum even when important voices disagree. Conflict management was one of the skills highlighted by two-thirds of the successful CEOs who participated in the CEO Genome project. These leaders listen to the echoes of voices from a wide variety of points of view without allowing them to delay the process waiting for general consensus.
It’s no secret that the best executives surround themselves with people who are talented in areas where they are not strong. When options are on the table, the CEO Genome Project found that successful CEOs move quickly, even before all the data is out. The problem with delving into the complexity of every decision, even when it results in making the right determination, is that it creates bottlenecks, frustrates hired talent, or creates a slow-moving workforce that can cause the business to idle and eventually grind to a halt. A wrong decision, according to the study, was better than no decision at all.
“The moment arrogance sets in, or there is an overconfidence that ‘I can do no wrong,’ good judgment is thrown into disarray, and then bad decisions and misplaced complacency will follow.” – Jere Thompson, Jr.
The willingness to act on ideas and decisions is the asset that effective executives bring to the table. And when a determination turns into a big disappointment, or a market fluctuation sends plans spiraling, the high-performing CEO adapts easily. For now, there is no instruction manual, but the Harvard Business Review study found that the adaptable leader was a successful CEO and one who statistically spent more time, up to half, focusing on the future. They are not content to stay within their niche, but instead research a wide range of data and resources, including information unrelated to their industry, to check the pulse of the market and intuitively spot changes before they happen. arrive.
“I believe great leaders are caring, compassionate, transparent, humble, understanding, servant-minded and always learning,” says Loehr Chrysler. “They take advantage of their time management skills and learn to listen to their inner voice and instinct for skill, while staying true to who they are inside and outside of their company. The more I learn, listen, read, study and work on my own leadership, the more confidence and wisdom I have for myself, to draw on when needed,” he stressed.
A little fear can be good sometimes
It is true that a lot depends on the smallest decision that a high-level executive makes because the stakes are higher. But if the frustration or stress of that responsibility turns into emotional outbursts and negative body language, it can be a detriment to the entire organization.
A study by the National Institutes of Health found that the mood of successful leaders directly affected how well individual team members were able to execute strategy and collaborate. Even an offhand comment or sarcastic taunt can send a department reeling if misunderstood, which explains why more than three-quarters of high-performing CEOs who participated in the CEO Genome Project scored high on being able to regulate their emotions.
When you have the most power, you also typically possess the most influence. That means that not only employees and contractors will follow the pace and style of their leader, but they will also look for clues as to what to expect next.
The expectations, both real and imagined, that come with promotion to the top rung of the success ladder can be daunting. But it turns out that being a little scared can sometimes be a great motivator.
“Every executive leader should have a degree of paranoia,” says Thompson. “The moment arrogance sets in, or there is an overconfidence that I can do no wrong, good judgment is thrown into disarray, and then bad decisions and misplaced complacency will follow. Both traits are company killers.”
When fears feel tangible, as they did at one point for Thompson and Loehr Chrysler, consistent commitment to the decision, building momentum without waiting for consensus, adapting to face the future, and consistently delivering results can provide a correction. of the course. And when doubts seek to set in, or a mishap feels like a failure, it’s important to remember that a nameplate on the door of the C-suite isn’t a superhero.
“Experience is cumulative,” says Thompson. “We all make bad decisions at some point in life. Leaders get up, dust themselves off and move quickly. Your organization depends on it,” he says.
4 things successful CEOs do
The Harvard Business Review CEO Genome Project found that the successful leader was almost obsessively consistent in at least one or more of the following four behaviors.
1. CEOs decide with speed and conviction
When this decisive behavior was present, even though all the facts were not available, or the executive was in uncharted territory, the CEO was 12 times more likely to be a high performer.
2. Participate in impact
Leading stakeholders without allowing them to influence the end result is almost an art form. These executives know how to recognize the motivations and discrepancies of key team members and have a pitch vision that allows others to join without losing face. Although these CEOs allow everyone’s voice to be heard, they are unwilling to accept that the fears of others change the course they have set.
3. They adapt proactively
CEOs spend most of their time preparing and thinking in the abstract (future outcomes, teams not yet built, problems lurking around the corner) to spot changes on the horizon. They also see setbacks not as failures, but as opportunities to improve.
4. Deliver reliably
Predictability is much safer. That’s why board members are more likely to elect the most stable candidate, even lower in rank than the star executive, with massive results if history doesn’t illustrate those gains over time.
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