Publish date: 03 April 2024

I’ve heard it said that professionals who suffer from self-doubt, or the so-called, “Imposter Syndrome”, can never be effective leaders. Their lack of confidence, perfectionism and fear of failure somehow prevents them from being competent decision-makers and bosses. Really? I’d argue that a dose of doubt means better judgment and balance, and their humility and vulnerability can give them a magnetic allure, or even gravitas, as a relatable leader. 

More often than not, people don’t leave their jobs; they decide to quit their boss. Some would say they had a “personality clash” or a “misalignment of expectations,” but in truth, the decision to move on is likely triggered by their boss’s character, style, and leadership approach. 

A question that’s frequently asked in job interviews (at least the ones that I have conducted) enquires as to why the applicant has decided to leave their current role and apply for the job with you. The stated answer can be a desire to take on a new challenge, to grow professionally, or to progress in their career. But when you dig a little deeper, almost inevitably, their decision to move on is a result of dissatisfaction with the hierarchy above them. It’s almost never about money. 

We all know that staff turnover has enormous direct and indirect costs, not to mention the impact on culture and morale. Armed with that knowledge, why do organisations unwittingly agree to pay the price of ineffective leadership? 

The worst leaders and managers are generally arrogant, merciless, solipsistic or overconfident. Their arrogance exudes confidence, but their self-indulgence excludes humility or a preparedness to accept responsibility for mistakes or underperformance. The overconfident leaders lack insight or self-awareness, and they tend to make decisions with no consideration of impact. The solipsistic and narcissistic types lack the curiosity to ask or empathy to understand other people’s perspectives or needs. Their selfishness can be breathtaking. This type of leadership can have a detrimental effect on the team and the organisation, emphasising the need for a more humble and empathetic approach. 

So, why would a mild dose of imposter syndrome support effective leadership? To my mind, it’s the insight, introspectiveness and understanding of the impact that comes with mild self-doubt. A short supply of confidence often makes a leader more relatable and authentic; showing their real selves rather than clinging to the infallibility of ego. If your natural inclination is to be curious, to ask questions, to listen to understand, and to empathetically analyse before reaching a conclusion, I reckon that’s a pretty good platform from which to earn the trust and confidence of your team. This self-doubt can be a catalyst for growth and learning, leading to a more effective and empathetic leadership style. 

With self-doubt comes a tendency to prepare, an openness to learning from others, a motivation to excel, and a willingness to embrace a growth mindset. And they’re likable. Aren’t these the types of attributes that we all want to see in our leaders? A diagnosable dose of imposter syndrome may be misconstrued as a weakness in leaders; I see it as a genuine advantage. Who wants to report to or work with a narcissist?  

According to some researchers, one-third of young people suffer from imposter syndrome, and 70% will have symptoms of self-doubt at some point in their lives. I reckon that’s a pretty good pool to draw from to find our empathetic, humble, resilient, and accountable leaders of the future. Confidence is welcome, but there’s no place for arrogance or self-centeredness in the C-suites! 

Travis Schultz
Travis Schultz
Managing Partner
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