Some of the biggest fish in business had to overcome insecurities and inexperience to become effective leaders. It’s vital to recognize your own vulnerabilities and repurpose them into strengths.
Entrepreneurs are notoriously hard to please. Ever heard of Paradise Syndrome? It’s when things are going so well—but you’ve been used to them being hard—that the good life makes you nervous, irritable, or even ill. It’s common among some of the richest and most secure people on the planet. Having no more mountains left to climb becomes a problem for them.
Let’s discuss another dark place in the entrepreneur’s mind: Imposter Syndrome. Think of it as the opposite of Paradise Syndrome because with this attitude, it seems like you’re surrounded by unclimbable mountains.
People suffering from the imposter mindset are convinced they’re not suited for a leadership role—they feel out of their depth and about to go under. These individuals don’t give themselves enough credit even when they achieve something significant. It’s like living “fake it ‘til you make it” in all the wrong ways.
But when entrepreneurs take a better approach, there’s actually little fakery involved. We need to make an honest effort to acknowledge our weaknesses while believing in our strengths—and behaving like a leader until it comes naturally.
Imposter syndrome affects many different people in numerous professions
Researchers Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander analyzed a wealth of research on imposterism and published their findings in the International Journal of Behavioral Science. One of their major takeaways was that Imposter Syndrome is common and not concentrated in a specific profession or role:
“[R]esearch has shown Impostorism affects a wide range of people. For example, Imposterism has been observed to affect both genders … and to occur in people with different occupations such as college students … academics … medical students … marketing managers … and physician assistants. [Various research has] found Impostorism occurred across different cultures. It is estimated that 70% of … people will experience at least one episode of this Impostor Phenomenon in their lives … anyone can view themselves as an impostor if they fail to internalise their success and this experience is not limited to people who are highly successful.”
They found that certain factors such as “perfectionism” and “family environment” can play a role in feeling like an imposter. And while many individuals “are able to fulfill their academic or work requirements despite their self-perceived fraudulence,” suffering from Imposter Syndrome often has clear ties to “psychological distress, such as anxiety and depression.”
A little self-doubt is natural. But continuously feeling like you are faking it, simply lucky, and not really good enough to deserve success is simply not healthy or productive, in the long run.
Are you an “Imposter”—or just human?
Ask yourself: Do you think that because you have doubts, uncertainties, or fears that you’re just not cut out to lead?
If the answer is “yes,” it’s likely wrong. And this crucial mistake has a knock-on effect. Not trusting yourself probably means you’re still not trusted by your team; at least, not fully. Being trustworthy is built on being authentic. And authenticity depends on being vulnerable, which in turn allows us to connect with the people around us.
It’s a tough thing to do because society often tells leaders to just suck it up, deal with it, handle it. We’re programmed to think vulnerability is weakness when, if it’s applied in a positive way, it’s anything but. It’s become a common, counterintuitive trait among entrepreneurs: In order to inspire constant confidence, leaders often feel that being an imposter is a prerequisite of their role. While there is a place for projecting confidence, it’s not required all of the time.
I used to think this way. In the past, I believed I had a handle on what being a leader meant, and part of this was always projecting strength. One of the mistakes I made was believing that I had to keep that stoic façade up and never let my team see how tough things could get.
But one day, it got the better of me. I couldn’t keep the act up any longer. I bit the bullet and confessed to my team. I was convinced that this was the moment they’d see me as weak. Incapable. An imposter. Instead, I learned that allowing your people “behind the scenes” can build stronger connections and a better business.
Why? Because our whole business ecosystem can flourish or fail based on which parts of ourselves we feed it. Opening our authentic self to our employees is the first step toward resonant leadership—a relational approach that fosters confidence based on the vulnerability and values we all share.
Sure, our employees want to know they’ve got a strong leader. But what they certainly don’t want is a stressed-out, well-meaning pretender who thinks the truth is something they can’t handle.
Suffering from crippling self-doubt is a bad thing, hence the word “crippling.” But some argue that having a touch of Imposter Syndrome can be good for a leader. It’s the idea of “fake it ‘til you make it” but since you are consciously aware of the fact that you are playing a part—the star in the play that is your life—you are less attached to the ideal, and can better weather the slings and arrows of failure and self-doubt. Debra Maldonado, CEO of Creative Mind Media LLC, described this positive take on imposterism:
- In a new business, you may have to shift your persona from a worker to a leader. Your ego mind is going to resist the new persona because it knows all of your history and backstory. You want to project confidence, but your inner dialogue is reminding you of all of your past failures and lack of experience.
- Instead of convincing yourself that you are good enough or smart enough to bolster up that ego, what if you knew that you were just playing a role and that was okay? You would not take your persona so seriously and be affected by what other people thought of you. Just like an actor who is playing a part, you don’t believe that you are the character and not so attached to preserve it and impress others with it.
Embrace the imposter, to the extent it makes sense. But don’t do it at the expense of being authentic and vulnerable
Business has peaks and troughs. Wouldn’t it be odd if you had a boss who always wore the same face, no matter if things were up or down? That’s a mask, not a person. And it creates cognitive dissonance in the workplace. Now, imagine you have an employee who’s really struggling and making mistakes. They’ve decided to hide it from you every day, covering it up with a big smile and an “everything’s fine!” sign.
You’d be well within your rights to be bothered on a professional level and personally hurt that they didn’t trust you enough to seek help. I mean, you work together, right? You’re a team, correct? Now turn this back on yourself. This simple flip in perspective shows how vital it is to be constructively open with our teammates for everyone’s benefit. As entrepreneurs, it’s OK to be fallible. And if we fall into the trap of believing we’re just not good enough, we’re writing a self-fulfilling prophecy. This starts in our head but can infect the whole business.
That said, it’s also ok to play a role that projects confidence, inspires others, and suppresses those voices in your head that say, “You’re not good enough.”
As entrepreneurs, we’ve got to embrace the imposter to some extent—but not at the expense of the authenticity and vulnerability that connect with our team and encourage them to constructively tackle challenges. It’s a tricky balancing act. But an eminently doable one.
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