When Leaders Get Imposter Syndrome

Rallying the troops when you feel exhausted and stressed is a recipe for self doubt. Here’s how to fight it.

A man pushing several large balls of various sizes up an incline.
Image: akinbostanci/E+/Getty Images

When Prince Albert, the second son of King George V, was called on unexpectedly to take over the throne after his brother’s abrupt abdication, no one told him to “just be yourself.” He had a severe stutter, and it was the 1930s when radio broadcasts were becoming an important channel of communications from the royal family. As depicted in “The King’s Speech,” the Academy Award-winning film on the subject, Prince Albert was neither eager nor prepared to ascend to the throne and take on such a public-facing role. Yet he managed to step up to the task at hand when it crucially mattered for the country.

The truth is that all leaders are people, too, and like everyone else, they are exhausted, stressed, frightened, and unsure of the best path forward. But a leader wields power and is responsible for the outcomes of others. And especially in a time of crisis and uncertainty, people are looking to leaders for security. To be effective, you must play the part and act like the leader that everyone needs you to be.

The key is to find a way to bridge the gap between your authentic self, the you that needs reassurance, and your responsible self, who is capable of providing reassurance to others.

Big roles come with authority, status, and power. They give us the right and the responsibility to tell others what to do. But the need to provide reassurance and instill hope, while needing reassurance ourselves, creates the perfect conditions for imposter syndrome — that fear many leaders know well, of being exposed as a fraud. It is not uncommon, when feeling like an imposter, to either overplay it, try to show strength and throw our weight around, or to step out of the role for a minute, and preemptively expose your own weakness. It might reduce anxiety temporarily, but being “authentic” in this way is not helpful to anyone else. Despite calls for greater transparency, no one wants to see the uncertainty and emotional toll of a crisis that takes place behind the curtain.

The idea that we might change our behavior in response to others’ expectations, or “act” in some way makes many leaders uncomfortable. But in his well-known book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman described how “being oneself” is, also essentially, a performance. We are all motivated to show ourselves in the best possible light, he argued, and to do this takes effort and planning. Acting, then, is not trying to be someone you are not. No one wants to “be” somebody else in a leadership role. We want to be ourselves, only better. And by adopting an actor’s mindset, by viewing leadership as a part we play in a larger story, we can all find ways to step up.

Even if you do not have answers, you’ll need to demonstrate a clear sense of purpose and direction, and a steady hand at the wheel. Instead of worrying about the power you don’t have, embrace the power you do have and show that you know how to use it. When preparing to address the troops, the key is to find a way to bridge the gap between your authentic self, the you that needs reassurance, and your responsible self, who is capable of providing reassurance to others.

Take perspective

An easy place to start is acknowledging to yourself that regardless of the role, everyone has moments of deep insecurity. When imposter syndrome rears its ugly head, instead of allowing your own self-conscious feelings to absorb all of your attention, it can be much more helpful to shift the focus of your attention to those around you. When we give our full attention to others’ feelings, it has the side benefit of quieting our own.

Get your inner thoughts on a leash

Kay Kostopoulos, an acting teacher I’ve worked with for years at Stanford, directs actors to use a mantra to help them stay focused on stage and quiet the voices inside their heads. Instead of dwelling on thoughts like “I’m terrified. I can’t wait to get this over with,” or “There are so many things I don’t know.” Try “I’m here for you. We can do this.” Or this favorite shared with me by a seasoned executive: “I’m glad to be here, and I know what I know.” It’s important to be intentional about thinking positively in these moments of real fear and negativity, to avoid inadvertently appearing cold, anxious, or hostile.

Make an entrance and hold court

Groups often use rituals and ceremonies to enact roles and mark role transitions — think of a coronation or inauguration. The public nature of these events makes expectations explicit: the role occupant will take on the responsibilities that come with the role, and in exchange, the rest of the world will treat the role occupant with the requisite respect. This aligns perspectives: When we play our part, this gives others permission to play their parts. And when we witness others treating us as though we are in charge, we can begin to internalize that reality.

To play your part as a leader in a crisis, you have to show up in character, as often as possible. Take note of how our country’s political leaders are holding press conferences every day, and of how many people are watching these briefings even when not much new information is being shared. When dealing with imposter syndrome, the natural instinct is to hide out, to reduce the risk of exposure, or to wait until you are sure you know what to say. A more effective approach is to make a point of showing up and simply playing your part. It is not a matter of faking it till you make it. It is a matter of accepting social reality and agreeing to play along.

Be concise

We often think speaking more, with velocity and energy, conveys greater authority, but in fact the opposite is true. Actors slow down, literally, when playing an authoritative character. They speak at a measured pace, in sentences with a clear beginning and end point. They accentuate their consonants to exhibit control. And they don’t race to fill time and space; they are comfortable with pauses and silence (see for example Keith Johnstone’s book Impro).

King George VI was not supposed to be king — it was a job for which his older brother had been groomed. But when the time came, he took his responsibility seriously. His natural manner of speaking was not right for the job, so he worked on it with a speech therapist. King George VI was beloved as a monarch; his reputation did not suffer at all from his choice to be inauthentic. When stepping into a position of power, you can focus less on whether or not you should be there and more on letting others know, “I’ve got this.” And take comfort in the wisdom of Colin Powell: “Sometimes you have to accept that others know better what you are capable of than you do.”

Social psychologist, Joseph McDonald Professor at Stanford GSB, author of Acting with Power: Why We Are More Powerful Than We Believe (Crown Publishing Group).

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