The Great Impostor

One of my Vistage members recently told me in a coaching session that he felt that he was the epitome of someone who was trying to ”fake it till I make it”. He said he didn’t feel that he knew what he was doing, and didn’t have the schooling necessary to make the right decisions.

Most people would have been surprised to hear that from him. He is quite successful by any objective standards: highly profitable business growing at 20 – 30 % a year, great house in a prosperous neighborhood, strong relationship, friends, family, dogs…

His statement reminded me of a classic case of the impostor syndrome I experienced at a similar age. I was working for a global French company, and had successfully completed three assignments in Scandinavia, Taiwan, and Japan. I had been invited to do a stint at head office in preparation for my next assignment in Germany.

I had arrived in Paris a couple of days early, bought a new Pierre Cardin suit, and showed up in the office bright and early on Monday morning. I met with the senior executive team, was even introduced to the Chairman. Then, I was shown my temporary office for the couple of months I was to spend there. The company has their own tower in La Defense. They had given me a corner office overlooking the Place des Reflets!

Just as I stepped into the office, I remember clearly thinking, “not bad for a kid from a small town in Oregon”! Immediately following that thought, I was absolutely paralyzed by an all-consuming fear that the next person who came through my door would know that I had absolutely no reason to be there. I was certain that they would recognize that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

For the next half hour, I sat frozen at my impressive, unfettered desk. All that ran through my mind was the long list of reasons I shouldn’t be there: I never studied business; I didn’t speak French; I started out as a dishwasher; most of the time, I was just guessing what needed to be done…

I experienced what I later learned was a true panic attack. Nothing made sense. Fear was everywhere. I wanted only to escape, to hide where none of my great shortcomings would be exposed. This was like the dream where you are naked in front of a crowd…except this was no dream. All the clichés played out. I was in a cold sweat, heart pounding, stomach cramping, adrenalin pumping, not a single coherent thought.

The impostor syndrome is a well-documented phenomenon, studied in depth by Joan Harvey in If I’m So Successful, Why Do I Feel Like a Fake? Studies of this syndrome claim that the two groups that are most severely affected are teachers, closely followed by upper-level corporate executives. The commonality seems to be the requirement to constantly have correct answers to an impossible number of questions.

Certainly, in today’s chaotic business environment, the challenge is exacerbated exponentially. With constant and rapid changes in the political, financial, technological, and generational aspects, running a business has never been more challenging. Yet, answers are expected…demanded, by employees, vendors, customers, shareholders. What is going on? What are your plans for the next 90 days? How are you going to meet your deadlines? Where are you going to find the A+ players we need to survive?

Sitting at my desk, immobile, in deep shock, I finally somehow began to breathe again. I started remembering why I was here. I began to realize that it was true that I didn’t know what I was doing. Nor had I known it when I took the job in Copenhagen…or Taipei…or Kobe. Yet, somehow, they had all worked out. Reflecting further back, I realized that I had never known what I was doing, that I had never been qualified for any job I had taken. But I learned on the job, and either succeeded or failed. Either way I grew and learned…and miraculously lived to do it all again.

My panic experience taught me a valuable lesson, which I recall with frequency when dealing with outsized egos in corporate braggadocio. The fact is none of us know what we are doing. All of us are trying whatever makes the most sense at the time with the available information. If any of the 16,000 business books in publication had the formula, all we would need to do is to apply it. Life is seldom that simple.

Amazingly, most of the time, things work out. Sometimes, we have to start over.  All we can do is to keep on faking it. Eventually, we will succeed…or try something else. Isn’t that what keeps life interesting?

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