Impostor Syndrome: the Coming Crisis for CEOs

Senior executives are generally acutely aware of the pressures they face. For many, that’s already enough to feel like they’re not up to the challenge and will be found out. What’s less obvious to most is that executives also don’t have access to the right tools: they’re being set up to fail. And that’s why impostor syndrome is a coming crisis.

If you’re a senior executive reading this, you’re probably very aware that the pressures on you have never been greater.

If so, you’re likely aware that some of these pressures come from within.

(After all, individuals elevated to positions of authority are usually hyper-aware of external scrutiny, often exhibit perfectionism or tend to compete with and compare themselves with their peers.)

Ultimately, though, you’ll know that far more pressures come from outside, with the accelerating tide of challenges buffeting business in today’s world being painfully clear.

For many CEOs, these challenges are already enough to seed a growing fear of being exposed as a “fraud” – a sense that the task they’re facing is beyond them and that they are going to be “found out”.

In other words, impostor syndrome.

But what you might not already know – although you may be beginning to sense and experience it – is that existing organisational structures and approaches are completely inadequate for responding to these challenges, no matter how hard you try to make them work.

And so, whether you realise it or not, the expectations placed on you as a senior executive – whether by yourself, by those under your authority, by wider stakeholders, or by all three – are increasingly unrealistic.

You’re not only being asked to do a job which is not only beyond difficult in and of itself; you’re being asked to do it with entirely the wrong tools.

At that point, your job is beyond impossible. And that’s why impostor syndrome is a coming crisis for any senior executive.

All is not lost – quite the opposite – but to escape this coming crisis, executives need to do three things:

  1. Recognise the unprecedented gravity and nature of the challenges they’re facing.
  2. Understand why they’re currently being set up to fail.
  3. Embrace the approach that addresses these issues: Value Management.

Let’s look at each in turn.

Impostor Syndrome: Unprecedented Challenges

The first factor that executives need to appreciate is that we’re long past any sense of business as usual.

You can be the most brilliant executive imaginable – decades of experience, a smooth ride to the top, unparalleled people and communication skills, a proven sense of instinct, a visionary and a track record of success – and what you’re facing now is still unprecedented.

And it’s only going to get worse as the ongoing and accelerating impact of technology continues, where the disruptive rise of AI is only the latest development on the back of:

  • Unprecedented connectivity and interdependence between more (diverse) people and stakeholders.
  • Transformation of the options and capacity for interacting, and reduction – or even elimination – of barriers of proximity, difficulty and cost of doing so.
  • Increasing automation of tasks, transforming the nature and experience of work.
  • Exponential increase of the speed, amount, availability, transparency and immediacy of information (even if this is often a double-edged sword, making it harder to discern what is most valuable amongst the “noise”).

And so we then see the following accelerating trends:

  • The changed expectations and priorities of an ever more connected world, with a changing balance of power between supplier and customer, the erosion of trust in familiar institutions and structures, and an emphasis on softer forms of “value”.
  • Bottom-up development of movements and ideas, rather than top-down control.
  • Previously unimaginable economies of scale.
  • The increasing dominance of services over physical objects, with both then increasingly overtaken in value by ideas, intangible assets and experiences.
  • Complex social issues as drivers of the global political agenda, and the associated turbulence.

In other words, there has in ongoing seismic shift something akin to the impact of the printing press, but on an exponentially different and more rapid scale.

At this point, predicting and anticipating the future becomes nigh-on impossible, decision-making is fraught with risk and error, unforeseen events and consequences abound, and it can feel as if chaos beckons.

Only executives with either a stunning ignorance of this reality or a stunning (and totally misplaced) sense of hubris wouldn’t be feeling the gnawing sense of impostor syndrome in response.

But what even those executives that aren’t suffering from ignorance or hubris mostly don’t yet realise is that the organisational structures and approaches at their disposal are only going to feed that gnawing sense of impostor syndrome: they’re being set up to fail.

Impostor Syndrome: the Wrong Tools

This set-up begins with the very concept of “senior executive” itself, which is embedded in a hierarchical and largely organisational structure and approach that reflects an understanding of the world that is no longer true (if it ever was).

This understanding has its origins in our own natural human tendency to prefer order to “disorder”, to derive security from predictability and control, and to pride ourselves in our problem-solving capabilities.

It has then been accentuated by the scientific method – applied to business by the principles of Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management – and by the Industrial Revolution, where scientific advances led the world to be understood principally as a “machine”, governed by known and fixed laws.

At this point, efficiency became the principal threshold of competition, with “exploitation” through repeatability (ahead of exploration), and optimisation and control being the keys to competitive advantage.

And so the familiar hierarchical structure of the organisation came to be, with roles and responsibilities codified, information flows and reporting routes defined and limited, and processes refined and embedded – all to create the perfect “machine” for execution, and all under the direction of executives.

There’s just one problem: it no longer works:

  • Challenges cut across organisational silos and divisions, but information flows and responsibilities remain vertical.
  • Fixed structures are the exact opposite of what’s needed in times of constant change.
  • Optimisation is no longer possible except in the most constrained and limited contexts.
  • Hierarchies assume that the few at the top are best placed to understand, decide and act, but they are removed from the frontiers of what’s happening on the ground, and information is filtered and out of date before it gets “up” to them… much less the time taken for their decisions to filter back “down”.

And so senior executives occupy positions where the reality of this “not working” is not only being most keenly felt, but where they are also being held accountable and responsible for:

  • Understanding and predicting the market.
  • Setting strategic direction and goals.
  • Making all major decisions.
  • Achieving the required financial results, reputational results and – with the growth of ESG, etc – societal results, too.

With the complexity of today’s world working against the achievability of each of these “tasks” – almost to the point of impossibility in some cases – no wonder executives are feeling the heat.

Add in that the entire system is also working against that achievability – whether executives realise it or not (and many don’t, so just double-down harder) – and heat then only intensifies: executives just don’t have what they need in order to be able to do what’s expected of them.

Hence the coming impostor syndrome crisis.

But it’s a crisis that can be averted, because there is an alternative.

The antidote to Impostor Syndrome: Value Management

Value Management addresses both issues we’ve seen so far:

  • The unprecedented gravity and nature of the challenges that business is facing.
  • The vicious conundrum that executives currently find themselves in, being asked to respond to these challenges with completely unsuitable tools.

In terms of the challenges, it starts with a completely different understanding of the world from that instantiated within the traditional organisational structure, and that understanding is that the world – and its challenges – are Complex.

We have written about this at length elsewhere on this site, but the key points are:

  • Accepting inherent change and unpredictability as inevitable with the intersection of (complex) humans and accelerating technology.
  • Instead of being “resigned” to this, instead consciously embracing the elements of dynamics of complexity with appropriate use of the technology that fuels them…
  • …which means engaging and empowering people at scale to create, share and act upon the most immediate, accurate and relevant information possible…
  • …and thereby harnessing Complexity in counteracting itself, to achieve resilience, agility and effectiveness.
  • Making Value – as expressed in the Things That Matter – the primary criterion, principle and focus for engagement, decision-making and action: Value firstly to the end customer, and then to all those involved in serving that customer.
  • Significantly re-conceiving of the organisation as a fluid and agile network of teams.
  • Fostering motivation, discernment, responsibility and accountability at all levels – not just the C-suite.

This is how Value Management works – through being Complexity-aware, People-centred and Value-led – and why it is the only approach that can work.

But, at this point, note that the role of the senior executive, and the tools that need to be used, change significantly.

Not only must executives help embed a new set of priorities and approaches for their organisations, using new strategies, but they also need new qualities to do so, and especially that of humility:

  • To acknowledge and respond to the (largely unfair but very real) perception that the current struggles are their fault.
  • To willingly acknowledge that they don’t (and can’t) know and understand everything and that intuition isn’t a viable means of compensating.
  • To act as a “catalyst”, “facilitator” and “moderator” ahead of the more familiar role of “directing”:
  • Encouraging self-learning and competence (especially the exercise of discernment) – targeted to the situation – as opposed to more familiar training programmes and similar interventions.
  • Developing and trusting the self-awareness to accept uncertainty and “imperfection” in outcomes, and to manage self-criticism.

Whilst this will take any executive some getting used to – and, in that sense, there could ironically be some sense of being an “impostor” until it becomes second nature! – the challenges they’re facing will no longer be beyond them, and they can let go of the fear of using the wrong “tools”.

And, finally – coming full circle to where we started – this all might be an antidote to those self-imposed pressures, too.

After all, for those executives that look across to their peers, they are far better placed to succeed.

For those prone to perfectionism, they can now accept where this is unrealistic and instead focus that tendency on doing the best job possible to facilitate success.

And – most of all – for those that continue to feel that weight of external scrutiny, yes, they may  still be “found out”…

…but they will instead be “found out” for having the insight, wisdom and courage to avert the coming impostor by changing course, and by changing course to the only viable approach.

How are you going to be “found out” when the coming impostor syndrome crisis hits?