Why do CEOs so frequently have feelings of loneliness and isolation?
Why CEOs Struggle with Imposter Syndrome
When the CEO has to project an image at odds with their private feelings, it can lead to Imposter Syndrome.
48-year-old Jonah was in his second year as Managing Partner of a growing law firm, and also going through a troubling time in his life and profession. (All case vignettes and examples in this article are composite sketches of different clients, identities and issues. Names and details are fictional.) As a former priest, former Marine, father and divorcé, Jonah had long made peace with being identified as a gay man. He was dedicated to reducing bias and making his own firm a welcoming workplace culture for L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ attorneys and staff, and diversity in general. He had visions of making his firm a leader in diversity-related law. However, into his 2nd year he felt uncertain about the success of his leadership. Although everyone verbally espoused his vision, it was neither gaining traction with all the Partners; nor was the firm succeeding in bringing in the kind of high-profile clients he thought they needed.
Instead, Jonah’s firm was soon faced with a high-profile diversity situation he could not have wished for.
A former temp employee, Gloria, had filed suit against the firm accusing Arthur, a long-time partner of Hispanic descent, of making sexually harassing comments. Gloria had not made any particularly positive impression during her short tenure; and Jonah thought the comments attributed to Hugo were ambiguous. Jonah had no idea if Gloria were seriously distressed or motivated by secondary gain.
Unfortunately, given his Firm’s espoused mission of promoting diversity, the lawsuit caught the media’s attention and Jonah faced a public relations quagmire and crisis, in which the nuances of the situation and the specifics of the case and people washed out in the glare of simplifications. “Whose side are you on?” the media asked. Also, within the firm there was pressure and anxiety about internal and public perception about the values of the company depending on how the lawsuit would be handled. Their entire identity and strategy seemed to depend on what happened next.
Jonah was already going through a tough spell. He and his partner of many years were working through a separation, taking turns living in their home and outside it. Jonah found himself nearly paralyzed by stress and depression, alternating with indifference and anger. Stress was not helped by having to keep the separation secret at the office. He came to hate having to discuss and confront what Diversity meant. People either simplified it grossly, or the nuances were too great and varied to do the issue justice. There were no simple solutions or talking points, and sometimes Jonah heartily wished he had never publicly associated himself and his firm with this particular mission. For that matter he wished he had never become managing partner. However, because he was the MP, he found himself repeating lines which were deemed to express commitment to Diversity yet sufficiently neutral. Expressing sympathy and concern for Gloria without having it construed as a lack of confidence in Arthur – or vice versa – was sickeningly pigeonholing for Jonah. He felt being pigeonholed was all-too-familiar in his life and it went against his grain. At the same time, he felt enormous pressure to be the public face of his Firm’s position on Diversity, and his own exhaustion and indifference made him wonder about his own values and commitment – for that matter, question everything about himself. Whether the firm had made a mistake in him; whether he deserved to have the top job. He felt one step away from being exposed as a fraud, and this added to the anxiety and pressure.