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Feeling Inferior? 5 Reflections to Beat Impostor Syndrome

Woman pointing at whiteboard in classroom

November 9, 2016

By: Jeff Campbell

Do you ever feel like you’re faking all of your skills and soon everyone will catch on?

In a limo full of senior leaders, this question created a collective sense of insecurity so palpable that all we could do was banter on and laugh sheepishly. It was the CEO of Pepsi-Cola, a chairman of the ad agency J. Walter Thompson, and myself, then the CEO of Burger King. We were sharing the limo with our spouses on the way to a charity ball at the New York Public Library. I don’t recall what exactly led me to ask if anyone had ever felt a jolt of “impostor syndrome,” but I do remember that the look on each of their faces answered my question instantaneously.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is a secret fear that many successful people have. A pair of clinical psychologists coined the term in the late 1970s to describe the tendency of high achievers to question their merit and internalize their accomplishments. A 2007 survey suggests that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of impostor syndrome in their lives.

For artists and writers, impostor syndrome might mean a fear of somehow losing their ability to create. Athletes could fear losing their innate talent. Actors and musicians may wonder if they’ll fall from the grace of a big hit to a career of duds and busts.

For leaders, impostor syndrome is the nagging and sobering possibility that you somehow might not belong in your position. Those who have risen in the ranks quickly tend to be more prone to these feelings of insecurity, compared to leaders who have spent a longer period of time climbing the ladder and building confidence.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Legendary baseball player Reggie Jackson once shared with me and a group of fellow businesspeople that he always feared a batting slump might last forever. This was one of the most “clutch” hitters of all time–Mr. October, Hall of Famer himself–voicing unrealistic fears of failure. I share this to provide comfort to anyone who might be feeling like an “impostor.” If anything, take it as a sign of greatness!

Having mentored many emerging leaders, I’ve discovered a few “reflections” that often help to curb impostor syndrome:

1. Achievement

Understand that you are recognized as a leader because you show a track record of success. Even if many of your successes are subjective, they are still worthy of respect.

2. Past Lessons

Remember the Thomas Edison quote, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” It rings especially true for leaders—your past failures are not indications of weakness but builders of strength. And don’t worry; you won’t fail anywhere near 10,000 times.

3. Collaboration

You’re not in it alone. Leaders possess the ability to entice performance from others. Your organization is not counting on you to do everything, even though it might feel like it at times.

 4. Accountability

Share your successes and own your failures. Accountability is your best friend. It enables you to control your direction, actions, and—on a grand scale—your career. If you’ve made it this far, you’re clearly an initiator or “self-starter.”

5. Consensus

Lastly, realize that your colleagues think positively of you. Your success equates to organizational success, which means everyone shares your vision and goals.

Become a Confident Leader

In the Hospitality & Tourism Management (HTM) Master’s Program here at SDSU, we’re developing the next generation of leaders. If you’ve landed on our page, we’re willing to bet that you already own the skills and drive to lead confidently for the rest of your career. Our courses and directed readings will help you develop the ability to reflect through “impostor syndrome” any time it arises, and perhaps even avoid it altogether. Learn more about our program here.

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