In her thoughtful column in the January edition of the Texas Bar Journal titled, “Do You Suffer From Impostor Syndrome,” lawyer coach Martha McIntire Newman, focuses on a topic that has too long flown under the radar. Ms. Newman describes this condition as “a state of chronic self-doubt that causes lawyers to fear they will be exposed as incompetent even though the evidence of their success is obvious to their colleagues and clients.” TBJ, Jan. 2019, p. 56. TopLawyerCoach.com This anxiety causes even “successful lawyers to second-guess themselves no matter how well they perform.”
The Impostor Syndrome discussed in Ms. Newman’s column is not limited to the legal field. We have encountered many business owners, executives and entrepreneurs who have struggled, at times, with crippling self-doubt. Ms. Newman quotes former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz: “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that [CEO] 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.” For business leaders who face doubts resulting from the Impostor Syndrome, this post offers three suggestions to consider in addition to the sage advice provided by Ms. Newman.
It can be lonely at the top. In a Forbes article last year, the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, said the real problem facing CEOs and top leaders is not loneliness, but isolation, and the article notes that a recent survey showed that half of CEO’s report feelings of loneliness. The first step, therefore, in overcoming the Impostor Syndrome is for business leaders to appreciate that they do not have go it alone. There are many sources for majority owners and top executives to obtain support, guidance and kinship, but they need to take action to find this support from outside professionals and peer groups. These sources include, but are not limited to all of the following:
- Executive coaches – who will provide guidance, mentoring and encouragement; the Coach Market is one group that will help match you with an executive coach geared to your individualized needs:
- Business leader groups- Entrepreneurs Organization markets itself as “the only global network exclusively for entrepreneurs” based on a model of peer to peer learning.
- Coach led business groups – Vistage provides executive coaching and in its marketing states that: “No one understands the challenges and needs of CEOs, business owners and key executives better than Vistage.”
- Renaissance Executive Forums also provides CEO Peer groups and executive coaching
These executive coaches and peer groups provide vital resources and support to CEOs, business owners and entrepreneurs. These resources afford executives with a proactive forum to discuss the serious issues they are confronting with others who are dealing with similar challenges.
Get Away (From the Office)
The pressures on business owners and top executives are intense and unavoidable. There is pressure to make the company succeed, to manage other officers and employees in the company, to deal with client problems and often, to remain actively engaged in family life. The failure to appreciate these demands and to put a stress management plan in place is a recipe for personal disaster, because the health issues caused by stress are so extensive. The Harvard Business Review reports that stress can cause increased production of cortisol and epinephrine at high rates, and these neurochemicals lead to ailments such as blood pressure and greater risk for stroke or heart attacks, cognitive ailments and depression. Chronic stress is also a factor in overeating or under-eating, alcohol or drug abuse, and withdrawal from social life. Finally, stress can increase the risk for ulcers and cause existing ulcers to act up.
The way to counter the corrosive effects of stress is to practice good health habits, e.g., a healthy diet, regular sleep and consistent exercise, as well as engaging in what the the Harvard Business Review refers to as “renewal activities,” all of which include getting away from work (concerts, theater, movies), intellectual activities such as puzzles, games and other hobbies and mindfulness activities such as meditation. “These executives are on the right track,” according to the HBR, as “Past research has shown that the harmful effects of stress can be at least partially counteracted by spending just 20 to 30 minutes per day engaging in renewal activities.”
Being sleep deprived, over/underweight, over-stressed, and consumed by work is not just unlikely to lead to effective business leadership, it produces life-threatening symptoms. As another Forbes article states: It doesn’t matter how emotionally invested people are in the companies they work for – if they feel burnt out, productivity goes down the drain.” In sum, business leaders need to recharge through exercise, eat right and engage in renewal activities away from the office, and get enough sleep in order to come to the office in good health and with creative energy and enthusiasm.
The final point is for business leaders to connect with others at the company by showing their human side. They need to be real. Business leaders are people too—they make mistakes, they have problems in their lives and they aren’t perfect. Owning up to mistakes, seeking input from others and not attempting to project an image of perfection humanizes leaders, builds trust and creates a culture of teamwork. Quotes from prominent business leaders highlight the importance of authenticity and sincerity to effective leadership.
Sheryl Sanderg, the COO of Facebook and noted author, puts it this way: “True leadership stems from individuality that is honestly and sometimes imperfectly expressed… Leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection.”
Sandberg’s comments are echoed by Rajat Taneja, an Executive Vice President and CTO of Electronic Arts, who said, “If there is a single attribute that can determine job satisfaction and our contributions to our customers, it is the importance of always being sincere. Sincerity is vital to our consumers, to our company and most importantly, to one’s self and one’s values.”
How can business owners and company leaders best express sincerity and authenticity at their companies? Here are some suggestions for them to consider:
- Promptly acknowledge mistakes and apologize when necessary
- Give credit—provide sincere compliments when performance warrants it
- Don’t make promises you know you can’t keep—that destroys trust
- Set both personal and company goals that are realistic/achievable
- Show some vulnerability—give examples of past mistakes/failures
- Really take the time to listen to others
On this last point, leaders can learn a lot from everyone at all levels in the organization. That is why it is so important for leaders to make the time to listen to what others have to say, especially when they do not agree with the leader’s position. As Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
It is obvious to state, but sincerity can’t be faked. When leaders make the effort to show their human side—the one that is vulnerable and imperfect, it has the potential to pay big dividends. When business leaders show that they are passionate and committed, but willing to be open, to listen and acknowledge their limitations, they build trust, foster teamwork and inspire others by their example.
The Impostor Syndrome is serious issue faced by both lawyers and business leaders. The higher that people rise in the legal and business world, the more they may become subject to bouts of anxiety. When faced with these self-doubts, leaders should not attempt to face them alone or without putting an action plan in place to address them. With an executive coach or a peer group on board, with time spent away from the office to focus on health and other interests, and with a commitment to an open, sincere approach to leadership, the Impostor Syndrome will not serve as a barrier to lasting success.