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Imposter syndrome: definition, types, symptoms, causes & strategies

by Thuy Sindell, PhD. and Milo Sindell, MS.

Decoding leadership imposter syndrome: types, symptoms, causes & strategies to overcome

Leadership imposter syndrome is a pervasive phenomenon that affects individuals in leadership positions across various industries.

It’s a psychological pattern where leaders doubt their abilities and accomplishments, believing that they are frauds despite evidence of competence and positive feedback.

After we initially define imposter syndrome, we will explore leadership imposter syndrome in detail, discussing different types, symptoms, statistics, causes, examples, and strategies to overcome it not only for leaders but across all levels of an organization.

Leadership imposter syndrome defined

Imposter syndrome, first introduced by psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in the late 1970s, refers to a persistent feeling of intellectual fraudulence despite evidence of one’s success and competence.

In the context of leadership, it manifests when leaders doubt their skills, experience, and qualifications, fearing they will be exposed as imposters.

What are the types of imposter syndrome in leaders?

Leadership imposter syndrome can take various forms, with individuals experiencing it differently.  Common types include:

The perfectionist

Leaders with this type set excessively high standards for themselves and feel they need to meet them.

The superhero

These leaders believe they must excel in every aspect of their job, often taking on too much responsibility in their role and burning out.

The expert

Leaders of this type feel they must know everything about their field and are afraid to ask for help or admit when they don’t know something.

The soloist

Soloists prefer to work alone and hesitate to seek collaboration or assistance from others, fearing they will be seen as incapable.

Does any of this sound familiar? If so you may be experiencing the imposter phenomenon.

Leadership imposter syndrome symptoms

Recognizing the symptoms of leadership imposter syndrome is crucial for both leaders and their organizations. Common symptoms include:


Constantly questioning one’s abilities and fearing failure.


Striving for perfection and feeling like nothing is ever good enough.

Avoiding praise

Failing to accept praise, downplaying compliments and attributing success to external factors.

Fear of exposure

Believing that others will eventually discover their lack of competence.

Anxiety & stress

Experiencing high levels of anxiety due to the fear of being “found out.”

Leadership imposter syndrome at work - statistics & research

The prevalence of leadership imposter syndrome in the workplace is a significant concern.

According to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, research shows up to 70% of individuals experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives.

While there is limited research specifically on leadership imposter syndrome, data from general imposter syndrome studies suggest that leaders are not immune to this phenomenon.

What causes leadership imposter syndrome?

Understanding the root causes and triggers of leadership imposter syndrome is essential for addressing this issue effectively.

Early experiences

Childhood and adolescent experiences of criticism, high expectations, low self-esteem or a lack of validation can contribute to imposter syndrome later in life.

Personality traits

Perfectionism, high levels of conscientiousness, and a strong desire for achievement can make individuals more prone to imposter syndrome.

Societal pressure

Societal expectations of success and the portrayal of flawless leaders in media can create unrealistic standards, leading to imposter syndrome.

Work environment

Toxic work environments, excessive competition, and a lack of mentorship can exacerbate imposter syndrome among leaders.

What triggers leadership imposter syndrome?

Leadership imposter syndrome can be triggered by various factors, including:


Moving into a higher leadership role can intensify feelings of inadequacy.


Comparing oneself to colleagues or peers who appear more accomplished can trigger imposter feelings.

Public speaking

Presenting in front of an audience or facing media attention can exacerbate imposter syndrome.

Negative feedback

Receiving criticism or negative feedback can reinforce self-doubt.

Leadership Imposter Syndrome at Work Examples

Understanding real-world examples of leadership imposter syndrome can shed light on its impact on individuals and organizations.

As a new leader

A newly promoted manager may constantly doubt their ability to lead a team, fearing they lack the experience or skills necessary for the role.

As an established leader

Even experienced CEOs may struggle with imposter syndrome when facing high-stakes decisions or industry disruptions, doubting their capacity to navigate challenges.

Imposter syndrome in executives

High-ranking executives may feel like they’re “faking it” despite their accomplishments, leading to anxiety and burnout.

As an employee

Employees who aspire to leadership roles may battle imposter syndrome, hindering their confidence and career progression.

Leadership imposter syndrome

Leadership imposter syndrome is primarily a psychological phenomenon that affects an individual’s perception of their own abilities and achievements.

It often manifests as persistent self-doubt and the fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite having the necessary skills, knowledge, and qualifications to perform in a leadership role.

Characteristics of leadership imposter syndrome


Imposter syndrome is characterized by negative self-talk, a constant questioning of one’s abilities and accomplishments even in the face of evidence to the contrary.


Individuals with imposter syndrome tend to set unrealistically high standards for themselves and often strive for perfection, feeling that nothing they do is ever good enough.

Avoiding praise

They may downplay compliments and attribute their successes to external factors, refusing to take credit for their achievements.

Fear of exposure

There is a persistent fear that others will eventually discover their perceived lack of competence, leading to high levels of anxiety and stress.

In essence, leadership imposter syndrome is a cognitive and emotional struggle that distorts one’s self-perception but does not necessarily reflect their actual competence.

Genuine incompetence

On the other hand, genuine incompetence refers to a legitimate lack of the skills, knowledge, or qualifications required to perform in a leadership role effectively. It is not rooted in self-doubt or negative self-perception but is rather an objective assessment of an individual’s capabilities.

Characteristics of incompetence

Lack of skills or knowledge

Incompetence is marked by an individual’s inability to perform tasks, make decisions, or lead effectively due to an absence of necessary skills or knowledge.

Consistent underperformance

Leaders who are genuinely incompetent often demonstrate a pattern of consistently poor performance and an inability to meet the basic requirements of their role.

Inability to learn or improve

Incompetent leaders may struggle to learn from their mistakes or adapt to changing circumstances, leading to ongoing issues and negative outcomes for their team or organization.

Unlike leadership imposter syndrome, genuine incompetence is an objective evaluation of a leader’s capabilities and their ability to fulfill their responsibilities adequately.

Overcoming leadership imposter syndrome: how to deal with imposter syndrome at work

Overcoming impostor syndrome requires self-awareness and focused strategies. Here are ways to tackle imposter syndrome at different levels of leadership:

As a new leader

  • Self-reflection - Acknowledge and challenge self-doubt through introspection.
  • Seek mentorship - Find an experienced mentor who can offer guidance and support.
  • Embrace mistakes - Understand that making mistakes is part of the learning process.

As an established leader

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy - Consider therapy to reframe negative thought patterns.
  • Share vulnerabilities - Opening up to trusted colleagues can alleviate the burden of imposter syndrome.
  • Focus on accomplishments - Keep a record of achievements to remind yourself of your competence.

Imposter syndrome in executives

  • Executive coaching - Engage in coaching sessions to address imposter syndrome at the highest levels of leadership.
  • Delegate responsibilities - Recognize your limits and delegate tasks to competent team members.
  • Cultivate a growth mindset - Embrace challenges as opportunities for growth rather than threats.

As an employee

  • Skill development - Invest in continuous learning to build confidence in your abilities.
  • Seek feedback - Regularly solicit feedback to gain a more accurate assessment of your performance.
  • Affirmations and visualization - Practice positive self-talk and visualize success to boost self confidence.

Working with a colleague with imposter syndrome

If you’re working with a colleague who experiences imposter syndrome, there are strategies to offer support:

  • Be empathetic - Listen actively and validate their feelings of inadequacy without judgment.
  • Encourage self-reflection - Help them recognize their accomplishments and capabilities.
  • Provide constructive feedback - Offer feedback that focuses on their strengths and achievements.
  • Promote mentorship - Connect them with a mentor who can provide guidance and reassurance.

Ways to stop feeling like an imposter

Overcoming imposter syndrome and breaking the cycle of imposter syndrome requires consistent effort and self-compassion. Here are some ways to combat imposter syndrome and stop feeling like an imposter:

Identify negative thought patterns

Recognize when imposter thoughts arise and challenge their validity.

Celebrate achievements

Acknowledge your successes, no matter how small, and give yourself credit.

Set realistic goals

Avoid setting overly ambitious goals that fuel feelings of inadequacy.

Seek professional help: Consider therapy or counseling to address imposter syndrome if it significantly impacts your life and well-being.

Stop letting self-doubt undermine your accomplishments & skills

Experiencing imposter syndrome as a leader is a common yet often misunderstood phenomenon that affects leaders across various fields. It can be caused by early experiences, personality traits, societal pressure, and work environments, and it can be triggered by promotions, comparisons, public speaking, or negative feedback.

Recognizing imposter syndrome symptoms and differentiating it from incompetence is vital. Leaders at all levels can overcome imposter syndrome by practicing self-awareness and employing targeted strategies such as seeking mentorship or a career coach, sharing vulnerabilities, and embracing a growth mindset.

Additionally, supporting colleagues with imposter syndrome through empathy, constructive feedback, and mentorship can create a more inclusive and productive work environment.

Breaking the cycle of imposter syndrome requires effort, self-compassion, and a commitment to celebrating achievements. By addressing this psychological phenomenon, leaders can stop letting self-doubt undermine their accomplishments and skills, ultimately leading to greater personal and professional success.

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