Why CEOs are vulnerable to Imposter Syndrome

The Myth of CEO Invulnerability

The Myth of CEO Invulnerability: Visibility and Power Leads to Loneliness for Chief Executive Officers (CEOs)

Part I: Leadership power can change relationship dynamics
Part II.a: The emotional labor of visibility
Part II.b: Why CEOs are vulnerable to Imposter Syndrome
Part III: The Value of having a leadership style that leads to good intel
Part IV: Core skills to help CEOs combat loneliness and isolation

On the one hand it would seem as if the power and prestige of the corporate CEO position is an enviable one, like being a star, and usually coming with wealth and privilege. These positions come with a high level of visibility, and with that the pressures associated with it.

On the other hand, with such privilege comes a price, specifically a level of visibility that cannot be separated from the pressure associated with it. Leaders of other types of organizations outside of business, including government leaders, cultural icons, etc., may live with even more exposure, and some may be more than pleased to opt out of the privileges in order to be free of the pressures. But this article will focus narrowly on CEOs.

A Harvard Business Review article reported that 50% of the CEOs they studied reported feeling lonely, and 60% admitted that they believed their loneliness negatively impacted their performance.

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.

Projecting an image comes at a high price

While visibility and the requirements of maintaining a public persona can make CEOs vulnerable to feeling like imposters, that experience does not necessarily, or routinely, reach the level of intensity and personal psychological challenge as depicted in this vignette. Yet in a crisis the pressure on a CEO to project a strong image and espouse more simplistic positions than they feel can reach near-crippling proportions. While a competent CEO like Jonah must sometimes project an image at times at odds with their private feelings, it can lead to feelings of imposture. Jonah was already feeling weakened by the [normal] difficulties of his private life coinciding with the normal growth demands of a new leadership role. New relationships, breakups and other life transitions are a normal aspect of living. Disruption to housing can greatly add to mental wear and tear. A major promotion or stretch position requiring new skills can be taxing. Maintaining the façade of a strong or charismatic persona that is partly faked in the service of “message” is emotional labor. To the extent that it involves hiding one’s personal feelings or otherwise doing something that feels inauthentic can come at a high price. Yet the price to be paid to protect the organization’s interest is often higher and lonelier for the CEO because she or he stands in for their organization the most. CEOs may have to keep more issues closer to their vest, and have fewer people to confide in. They may have to worry, sometimes accurately, that a hint of vulnerability or unbaked disclosure of their private views may trigger a perception that influences the company’s direction, or negatively impact its value. In some cases they may have trouble turning off the persona when they go home, which can lead to further isolation.

In a way, feeling inadequate in the role of CEO is a natural growing pain and does not imply any deficiency. It is natural because the image of the invulnerable CEO is impossible to sustain. Another factor that contributes to the feeling of being an imposter for a CEO is the gap between the power they have and the power they feel. In Jonah’s case, his public identity as a gay man and his wish to promote diversity in his organization were a work in progress, values that were personally important to him but only beginning to be institutionalized before he had to step up to the glare of media to personify what it meant to his organization.

What would be helpful to Jonah?
Crises are classic stress overload situations.

  • Stress can lower your defenses to a bevy of negative feelings such as depression, anxiety, and self-doubt. A vicious cycle can be activated in which a person believes they should solve their way out of their problem by over-thinking, or otherwise working harder to find the way out. This has the effect of burning up valuable fuel such that the nervous system shuts down in self-defense. That can be manifested as emotional shutdown, indifference, cognitive overwhelm, depression and irritability. There are many ways to help someone improve from that condition, but chief among them is Rest and Repair (R&R).
  • Help Jonah talk the issue out loud with people who can listen to his dilemmas without trying to solve the problem or tell him the best way to handle the situation. The issue at hand is extraordinarily complex and there are many aspects to be understood about Gloria and Arthur. Busy people often do not give themselves the space to explore the details and nuances of critical situations like this one. If there is a feeling of being backed into a corner, it can often be due to insufficient understanding of the situation’s complex factors and exploration of options.
  • Normalize and validate the stress Jonah is feeling. Who wouldn’t buckle when both their home and work life are threatened simultaneously? (See Cultivating Leadership Emotional Fitness: How to boost the leadership personality immune system)
  • Seek good allies. Under threat it is a natural and appropriate instinct to “herd.” It is important to use good judgment to find helpers who don’t just agree with you but who can be both sympathetic and impartial.