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    Imposter syndrome can affect all of us, whether you’re a graduate in your first full-time role, or you’re a seasoned CEO with 30+ years of experience under your belt.

    But, when we read and hear about imposter syndrome online – the latter is rarely spoken about. An article by Forbes highlighted that at least 70% of us will experience imposter syndrome at least once in our lives. 

    However, the actual conversation about the feelings and knock-on effect that imposter syndrome can have at a senior level seems to only be prevalent within the community of “new leaders” – seemingly eliminating a whole demographic of seasoned C-Suite professionals or equivalent who sit at board level. 

     

    What is imposter syndrome, and what makes it different at board level? 

    Imposter syndrome is mainly associated with doubt in your current role, and feeling like an imposter, as though you don’t belong there. You may feel unworthy, unable to celebrate your achievements and at the crux – insecure. 

    What makes this difficult to navigate at board level is that there is an abundance of “evidence” (tenure, technical expertise, and education) demonstrating your worthiness and capability, which then forces many executives to “suck it up” and lead and make decisions with this feeling. This can, in turn, leave those at board level feeling isolated and embarrassed – instead of communicating openly that they feel this way. 

    Forbes touched on this in the same article, stating “The best antidote for imposter syndrome is to talk to others about your thoughts and the feelings you’re experiencing, but [we’ve] found the circle of trust often becomes smaller for leaders and executives. They have fewer mentors and people who they feel like they can talk to honestly. They feel more pressure to be perfect and to deliver.”

     

    The perfectionism paradox vs vulnerable leadership

    Perfectionism and imposter syndrome usually go hand in hand, with the perfectionist setting unrealistic goals to be “the best” – and when they fail to reach those goals, further feeding the notion that they don’t belong there. 

    If we look at this through a board-level lens, this mindset – particularly if shared by other seniors, can be detrimental to business performance, those in your reporting line, and the culture of your organisation. 

    This doesn’t mean that high achievement and hard work should be thrown out the window. Instead, reframing leadership approaches and creating a culture of flexibility and vulnerability will enable everybody to thrive and communicate and mitigate imposter syndrome at the root cause. 

    The perfectionism paradox can be rife – especially within high-growth businesses. There are metrics to hit, and milestones to achieve, and high-growth businesses are rarely left space or time for nuance or reflection. Leaders are often spread thin in these environments, needing to make quick decisions and consistently stepping outside their comfort zones. Whether you’re a “new” leader or a seasoned one – the difficulty of this stays the same. 

     

     So, what is the solution? 

    The solution to tackling imposter syndrome at board level isn’t as black and white as vulnerable leadership – this is so multifaceted and takes a long time to cultivate and implement. However, there are three ways in which those at board level can recognise imposter syndrome and work through it using a top-level down approach:

     

    Culture and communication: If you create a culture that is centred around open communication at all levels, this will make it easier to talk about imposter syndrome as well as other concerns. 

    Vulnerability is a superpower for leaders, and using open lines of communication to discuss your fears, thoughts, and feelings is incredibly powerful. Not only will this show people that it’s normal to feel this way, but you’ll also lead by example and give those a platform to feel safe (and not judged) when they need to communicate about difficult topics (even if this sits outside of imposter syndrome). 

     

    Mistake vs. learning: The perfectionism paradox looks to punish you if you can’t achieve well every time – and can also stunt any opportunity for learning. Creating a culture that rewards mistakes and shares solutions are beneficial for everybody, regardless of your seniority in the business. 

     

    Community: Especially at board level, community and partnership are crucial. Naturally, there will be some elements of imposter syndrome that you may not want to share with others in the organisation, so having a community of individuals outside whom you can talk about things with can be just as effective.

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