When Donald Trump recently declared himself “a very stable genius”, in response to publication of a new book that suggests he’s unfit for office, I wasn’t surprised.

After the release of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Trump took to Twitter, saying, “throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. I went from very successful businessman, to top TV star to president of the United States (on my first try).”


That level of self-praise is what we’ve come to expect from the US president. Thing is, not all leaders are that confident of their abilities and achievements. And many of today’s leaders and managers have probably, at some point, suffered from the form of professional self-doubt known as impostor syndrome.

Symptoms of impostor syndrome include excessive worrying before delivering a presentation. A sufferer might drown out words of praise from colleagues with an inner chorus of self-criticism. To compensate, they might work longer hours than they should, take on too much and feel unable to delegate. All these behaviours can eventually lead to further anxiety, stress, tiredness and even depression.

First defined in 1978, by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Clance, this anxiety-related condition – estimated to affect up to 70% of successful people – isn’t performance-related. In fact, the more successful sufferers get, the worse they feel – somehow convinced they’re fooling people by being good at what they do.

Rather than declaring their “genius”, leaders and managers experiencing impostor syndrome downplay their achievements. This self-deprecating attitude can develop into an inner feeling of panic as they wait for their colleagues to rumble their imagined lack of ability. In the worst cases, sufferers live in fear of being discovered as a fraud.

Feeling deserving

If you experience symptoms of impostor syndrome, don’t worry – you’re in good company. High achievers Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Facebook chief operating officer (COO) Sheryl Sandberg are all reported sufferers of impostor syndrome. The main problem sufferers of impostor syndrome have is that they don’t feel deserving when it comes to their position and achievements.

If the question you’re asking yourself is “should I be here?” or “do I deserve this?” then your answer should be to look at where you are and remember how you got there. You must be as certain as you can be that based on the evidence around you, you’re doing your best, working hard and acknowledging others for your success along the way.

Dimensions of leadership

The Institute of Leadership & Management recognises five dimensions of leadership.  These are “authenticity”, “vision”, “collaboration”, “ownership” and “achievement”.  When it comes to the issue of impostor syndrome, I believe understanding yourself, being self aware, is the first step to becoming a more authentic leader.

If leaders and managers are riddled with a sense of insecurity their negativity can spread through an organisation, but the key to stepping up, in these situations, is to keep learning. There’s always scope for improvement and something new to learn – and you can always get better at what you do.

Management style

To be able to work at your full potential, you need to know and appreciate the learning, personality and management styles that are instinctive to you. If you have an appreciation of your preferred styles, you’ll not only work more efficiently, but will form more successful working relationships. These are the benefits of having self-awareness.

People who experience impostor syndrome tend to have a very “I-centric” mentality. One way to beat it is to shift to a more “we” outlook and focus on helping the team around you get better at what they do. And by attributing achievements at work to a team effort, you’re sharing successes. This means success becomes less of a “burden” and more what it should be – something to celebrate.

As a manager, it’s also a good idea to avoid the spectre of the so-called Peter Principle. This holds that an individual’s workplace status is determined by their levels of incompetence, rather than their competence. It’s a kind of “glass half-empty” approach – which can be undermining and demoralising.

If you are experiencing flashes of impostor syndrome, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We all feel overwhelmed in our professional lives, especially as we progress and reach higher levels of seniority or responsibility. Focusing too much on reasons why we are not doing a good job may lead to anxiety and depression. And we take such symptoms of poor mental health at work very seriously at the The Institute of Leadership & Management.


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