I was at a 2 day conference waiting to present on the topic of Positive Leadership to the 300+ competent and highly regarded leaders, chatting to some of them during the breaks. I began to notice the patterns in what they were saying,

  • “I’m just waiting to be found out to be honest”, said one with a rueful grin.
  • And another interjected: “I’m not entirely sure how I got into this role but I’m doing my best to keep my head above water”
  • “I don’t always feel that I belong here, there are so many talented leaders around”, admitted another.
  • “I recruit people who are more talented than me because I know I should but if truth be told, I feel uncomfortable as they could do my job standing on their heads” shared my companion as he accompanied me to the podium.

Wow…powerful, moving stuff….

Let’s be clear these leaders were leading huge teams, some of them were responsible for up to a couple of thousand people. They were well trained professionals with an on-going development programme available to them. They were highly regarded by their organisations.

So, what was going on? Imposter syndrome, that’s what.

Imposter syndrome: the toxic self-talk that corrodes self-confidence and self-belief so that those experiencing it lose touch with their strengths and skills, their knowledge and experience, their talents and capabilities. Instead they begin to hear the siren calls of self-doubt getting louder and louder. They are just waiting to be found out. They’re intensely alert to the possibility that someone will put their hand on the leader’s shoulder and say, “We’ve realised that you’re not the leader we thought you were. You need to step down.”

Does this resonate with you? I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. After all, it’s everywhere. This conference was simply the loudest manifestation of a syndrome that I bump into with clients, family and friends alike all the time.

It was such a dominant feature that, as I stepped up to the podium, I began to wonder if I should have changed my presentation to be on the topic of Imposter Syndrome. I didn’t but this is what I would have said if I had.

  • Know that you’re not alone. It’s everywhere, some say 70% of people report having experienced it. It has a name. There’s even a book about it, Imposter Syndrome by Elizabeth Harrin.
  • Be clear that “it is particularly common among high-achieving men and women” (Langford, P.; Clance, PR. 1993). It’s also more common amongst ethnic minorities.
  • Watch your “self-talk”, you know all that stuff you say to yourself in your head, e.g. “I can’t do that”, “I’m nowhere near as good as…” or “What an idiot I am. How could I have made that mistake. Again.” Invite yourself to talk to yourself as you would talk to your best friend, e.g. “Yes, I can’t do it yet. But my strength of strategic thinking could really help here. If I collaborate with Jennifer I think we could do a good job together.”
  • Keep a record of all your achievements. Every email. Every voicemail (write it down!). Every appraisal, project review. Use your phone to take photos of great outcomes. Post the evidence around you of all the good stuff that you do. Make it easy to stumble over several times day. Give yourself somewhere to go when you’re feeling especially vulnerable to Imposter Syndrome.
  • Be really clear about your strengths. Really, really clear. Invest in using them and developing them. If you’re not sure how to do that, look out for next month’s blog on Strength Spotting or ask us to help you by completing a Strengthscope feedback discussion.
  • Become really clear about your weakness (yes, I’m asking you to focus on one and one only)…and consider using a strength or two instead. Go on. Ask yourself, “Which strengths could I use instead of my weakness?”
  • Be really confident that you know when you’re “at your best” and visit that place as often as you can. Ask others when you’re at your best. Embarrassing? Yes, mildly … but evidence demonstrates that when other people give us feedback we’re much more likely to believe it. Ask 20 people and you’ll have some wonderful stories to add to your achievement folder.
  • When success hits and you’re receiving positive feedback:

  1. …take a deep breath…
  2. …repeat their exact words back to them, “Wow, thanks. You’re saying that I made a significant impact on the Joint Venture through building relationships with the main partners. Thank you”.
  3. When your self-talk starts to argue back (“It was Jack, it wasn’t you” or “You were lucky” or “Yeah, but what about all the mistakes you made that they missed…” etc), repeat the exact words back to yourself, “She said that I made a significant contribution to the success of the JV through building relationships with the main partners”.
  4. Record it somewhere, even if it’s just you speaking it into your phone. Keep it. You’ll need it.

  • When you hit a problem (and please remember that everyone makes mistakes, even you!):

  1. Wallow in your file(s) of achievements. Don’t rush it. Take your time.
  2. Then and only then address the mistake. You’ll be more objective and better able to address the problem because you’ll have gotten out of your own way.
  3. When explaining how the mistake happened, look for reasons that go beyond your own contribution too, e.g. “Yes, I accept that I procrastinated and that held things up. I will use my strength of Results Focus more next time. But Joe was also slow to give me the figures that I needed and HO brought the deadline forward”. Don’t over-emphasise your contribution – keep it accurate.
  4. Remember: “this too will pass”. It’s a temporary problem. Keep it in its perspective. Keep it real.


Imposter Syndrome. It’s everywhere. But you can overcome it. Recognise it, address it…and then help others do the same. Remember it occurs most frequently in high-achieving women and men. You’re successful. Isn’t it time to acknowledge and embrace that fact? Then you can get on with what you’re really supposed to be doing: making a difference.