the ceo magazine, manage fear,
Andy Molinsky, Professor of Organizational Behavior, Brandeis International Business School

“Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks

In 2014 Roger Jones, chief executive of Vantage Hill Partners, a London-based consulting firm, did a fascinating study of the things that CEO’s fear the most.  You may think you could quite easily predict the results: a failing economy… foreign competition… the price of labor… but as it turns out, their biggest fear was something far more personal and insidious:  it was the fear of failing – and, to be even more specific, the fear of being viewed as a fake or a fraud.

This feeling of being unworthy – and of having one’s unworthiness displayed to the world – is what psychologists commonly refer to as the imposter syndrome – and it’s a fear that plagues the vast majority of CEO’s interviewed in Jones’ sample. 

CEO’s do what they can to appear confident on the outside – to hide concerns about their abilities, but on the inside, many of them are deeply insecure, wondering to themselves what right they have being in the position they’re in, running a major company, dictating the future of investor’s money, controlling the future of so many other people’s livelihoods. 

What’s particularly problematic for CEO’s is that they’re not “supposed” to feel this way. After all, how could a person in such a powerful position feel incompetent to be making major strategic decisions… or developing a vision for the company… or delivering bad news.  And because CEO’s aren’t “supposed” to feel this way, it’s that much more tempting to hide one’s inadequacies from the rest of the world – to delay that product launch… to not making that key layoff decision… to have someone else deliver that key speech.  And with no supervising manager overseeing their every move, CEO’s often have the autonomy to avoid these uncomfortable tasks, at least temporarily, insulating themselves from stress and anxiety, but ultimately, of course, limiting growth potential for themselves and the companies they manage.

CEO’s aren’t going to stop having to learn and grow. The conditions they operate in aren’t suddenly going to stop being volatile, uncertain and complex.   The conditions will always be ripe for CEO’s to experience the imposter syndrome, but here are some scientifically proven strategies to limit its detrimental impact.

Tip 1 is to recognize that there can be some real benefits to being a novice, especially if you’re able to embrace these aspects of the process as opposed to feeling embarrassed by them.  For example, when you aren’t steeped in the conventional wisdom of a field or perspective, you can often ask questions that haven’t been asked before or approach problems in ways others haven’t thought of.   And, when coupled with a compelling mission, and a deep drive to figure out an answer, this novice perspective can end up being a tremendous asset for original thinking.  So, do what you can to embrace your novice status instead of feeling embarrassed by it.

A related second tip is develop what the psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “learning” mindset, where you see mistakes, and missteps as part of the learning process as opposed to evidence of your underlying limitations (and something to be ashamed about).  Of course, for those in the throes of experiencing the imposter syndrome, adopting such a mindset may be easier said than done.  When we’re anxious and self-conscious about our abilities, we often think in polarized extremes: that we’re a total failure, or that we’ll never be a successful CEO.  But the reality is that if you’re like the rest of us, you have some things you’re great at, other things you struggle with, and then a third set of things – probably most things – where you’re in the middle: neither a failure nor an expert, but, instead, in the learning process.  So, do yourself a favor and embrace the reality of this perspective. Don’t compare your inner struggles to other people’s highlight reels. Or as Tina Fey once quipped, “I’ve realized that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it.”

The final tip is to find a group of like-minded people you can commiserate with in an honest way about your challenges and successes.  Of course, for CEO’s that old cliché that it’s lonely at the top can be very true – but make it a top priority to find a group of people you know and trust and can be vulnerable with.  I’m guessing you’ll be surprised at how similarly you feel. 

No one said overcoming the imposter syndrome is easy.  But with a solid plan in place and the courage to take it forward, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can chip away at your feelings of inadequacy and embrace a learning-oriented perspective. 


About the Author

Andy Molinsky is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. His forthcoming book, Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence is to be published by Penguin Random House in January 2017. For more information visit andymolinsky.com and follow Andy on Twitter @andymolinsky.

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