Why imposters don’t suffer from imposter syndrome

Why imposters don’t suffer from imposter syndrome

3 min read

By Stuart Robinson

It’s likely you have struggled with imposter syndrome at some point in your leadership journey. If not, hang around a little longer and it will inevitably catch you up. Yet, for some leaders imposter syndrome rarely frequents their minds. It’s not as positive as you may think.

Whether it’s termed imposter syndrome or imposter phenomenon this is not a diagnosable medical illness. Yet, for those who suffer from its debilitating clutches it can render them incapable to move forward in their careers, or at least enjoy the success they achieve. 

The syndrome is best defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success.” There are many good articles on the subject including this one from Very Well Mind and another from the American Psychological Association They explain it well and provide wonderful examples and great coping strategies for sufferers.

could the real imposters please stand up?

While many successful leaders struggle to reconcile their evidentiary success with their abilities there are obviously some whose self-perceived potential fails to provide positive ongoing outcomes. If there wasn’t then we wouldn’t require the term “imposter” in our vocabulary. 

So, who are the real imposters and how do we find them?

To even begin the search we need to take a step back into psychology and understand what creates a real imposter. The Scientific American ran an article titled Are Narcissists More Likely to Experience Impostor Syndrome? which explored the idea of two types of narcissist: the vulnerable narcissist, and the grandiose narcissist. Both sit at opposite extremes on the narcissist continuum.

As expected, the vulnerable narcissist was more akin to suffering imposter syndrome. What really surprised researchers was grandiose narcissists were just as frail. Like the vulnerable narcissists they too struggled with authenticity, living purposeful lives, and anyone who questioned their superiority or power. 

Effectively, grandiose narcissists are our true imposters. They do struggle with imposter syndrome, but from a very different perspective. 

how does this help us?

From a personal perspective, Scott Kaufmann, from The Scientific American, encourages us to dial down the excessive preoccupation we have of how others perceive us. Being authentic should be our primary concern.  

Through my education, I didn’t just develop skills, I didn’t just develop the ability to learn, but I developed confidence.Michelle Obama

As leaders, this knowledge helps us on two fronts: understanding our people better, and making strategic decisions when we look at recruitment. 

The first aspect – understanding our people better – helps leaders understand that we’re not the only ones who suffer from imposter syndrome. It’s highly likely that most of your staff, including your executive team, sit on the imposter syndrome curve at some point. This links back into assisting them with their health and wellbeing, and finding practical methods to build resilience through authenticity. Some options may be:


  • Offering support mechanisms through small groups or counsellors
  • Find regular opportunities to affirm staff, but reserve flattery or hyper-inflated gushiness
  • Be authentic and share your own imposter stories
  • Encourage your staff to reassess their thought paradigms. Include this as an aspect of your culture and find ways to communicate it regularly.

 The second aspect – making strategic decisions during recruitment – relates to assessing candidate personality traits. If we acknowledge that grandiose narcissists are unlikely to contribute positively to our culture, then weeding them out before they’re entrenched makes uncommon sense. Personality tests such as the Big 5 Personality Traits (O.C.E.A.N.) offer far more insight into a candidate than a regular interview.

the washup

A quick survey of your staff will reveal that most employees have struggled with imposter syndrome to some degree. At extreme levels this can be disastrous for individuals, but for most it indicates a healthy self-awareness. For the real imposters, self-awareness evades them and their toxicity undermines the organisation’s culture and denudes staff morale. 

As leaders we are to be on the lookout for the real imposters, and support those who erroneously think they are. 

Stuart Robinson

Stuart Robinson

Stuart Robinson: MBA, 25+ years in school management. Business degree, AICD graduate. Founder and author sharing expertise in educational leadership, strategy, and financial management.

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