I once knew a first-time CEO who was at the top of his game. Let's call him Jeff, to protect his identity. He seemed to manage the spotlight and company pressures with ease. Indeed, he led his company to five straight quarters of consistent growth. From the outside looking in, he seemed to have every reason to feel fulfilled.
But then something happened that undermined his confidence.
He missed his revenue target for a quarter -- and it was not clear why. A difficult board meeting followed, where he had to explain what went wrong: The pipeline was strong, but deals had slipped. It happens. Yet that one miss and board meeting started a downward spiral for Jeff. Suddenly, he was having a hard time staying focused and adhering to what had been a winning strategy.
He started to believe that he was unworthy of his role -- that he had somehow stumbled into his CEO position without real qualifications. And he secretly worried that his greatest fear was starting to come true.
What was wrong? Jeff, the CEO, was suffering from imposter syndrome, the fear that one is unqualified to hold his or her position.
This irrational fear is precisely why many CEOs put up those impenetrable walls. They are scared that everyone -- their board members, colleagues, teams -- will view them as average people masquerading as important leaders.
Of course, it is both exhilarating and terrifying to be at the top. No one really understands the pressure you are under or the serious decisions that you must make. People depend on you to lead them and be an example of strength, things you may not feel that you can achieve in the moment.
As for Jeff, the former CEO, he let fear ambush his confidence. Ultimately, this fear kept him from reaching his full leadership potential. You do not have to follow his lead, no matter what your position. When imposter syndrome threatens to paralyze you, here are three things you can do.
1. Recognize what is happening.
Self-doubt can swiftly undermine your confidence. Before it gets out of control, you need to be honest about the problem at hand. Think about what has been happening lately and pinpoint when you started to feel like a poseur. Perhaps a jealous colleague insulted you, and you internalized that putdown as truth instead of one person's rotten opinion. Put this situation in perspective; acknowledge that your confidence is shaken, and commit to working past the negative feelings.
2. Start stepping out.
You cannot have an impact on anything or anyone if you are cowering in your office. Feeling like an imposter is no time to hide from your team -- that is when you must force yourself to step out and be extra bold. Face your problems by communicating with confidence and leading with an open mind.
This approach shows that you can be counted on during tough times. It also signals to your team that they can have honest conversations with you.
3. Give yourself a break.
If you are new to this leadership position, your confidence may simply be lagging behind. Every new role requires an adjustment -- especially if you are a new CEO. So, give yourself time to adjust. Remember your past triumphs that helped you earn this role; after all, you were chosen for a reason. And celebrate small wins wherever you can. Then, create a solid strategy and work toward achieving those long-term goals.
4. Be honest with your team.
It is better to freely admit when you do not know something than to lie and be found out. Sooner or later, your boss or colleagues will see through your cover-up attempt. So, resist the urge to pretend you know it all. Instead, be humble and ask questions of the smart people around you. People respect others who do not pretend to know everything. That humble sense of conviction will inspire everyone you interact with.
5. Get back to work.
Inaction is the worst mistake you can make. If you truly believe that a mistake has been made and you are not equipped for the job, do something about it. It is your responsibility to discover what you do not know. Start filling in those gaps, whether that means finding a mentor or taking management courses at night. Take every opportunity to shore up your weak areas and steadily improve each day. Focusing on continuous growth will eventually take you where you need to go.
You may think that your claim to your position is a shaky one. But the truth is that you earned the position through hard work.
You are often your own worst critic. So, do not believe the lie that you cannot get the job done, even if you have failed so far. When you start feeling like an imposter, that is the signal you need to push on through, and to keep going. We all feel overwhelmed at times; the key to success lies in your response.
How do you get back on track when you lose your mojo?