The Impostors: When Business Leaders Fear They'll Be Found Out

The writer finds a sizable portion of executives and managers think of themselves as frauds.

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Michael Wade
Their achievements are indisputable. They are regarded as successful by their peers. But none of this matters.

They think they are impostors.

I have met many of them. These insecure souls dismiss their accomplishments with a variety of excuses:

  • "I lucked out."
  • "I smooth-talked my way into a promotion."
  • "They overestimated my skills."
  • "My competition wasn't that strong."
  • "I had connections."
  • When asked which skills they would need in order to be a true achiever instead of a fake, they cite a skill that is somewhere out there, one that others possess. The missing skill of one "impostor" may be held by another "impostor" in the very same profession and work environment and vice versa, but each person claims that his or her skill is meaningless. They are convinced the real substance is elsewhere: "The other people are the ones who know what they are doing. I'm simply a sham."

    After years of coaching executives and managers, I've concluded that these self-declared impostors make up a sizable portion of the average business meeting. These are not real impostors who are hiding their incompetence. These are talented people who think they are unqualified. In some cases, they've spent decades denying their worth. Many begin the workday with the fear that "today is the day I'll be found out. My ineptitude will be revealed."

    Recognizing the problem, of course, is one part of the solution. So, too, is a willingness to take credit for the very real achievements. Combating the sense of being an impostor, however, is not an easy task. Professional counseling may be required. Most people have feelings of self-doubt that eventually pass. In the impostor's case, the feeling is frequent, and it lingers.

    Michael Wade writes, an eclectic combination of management advice, observations, and links. A partner with the Phoenix firm of Sanders Wade Rodarte Consulting Inc., he has advised private and public-sector organizations for more than 30 years.