Alone at the top: why CEO’s struggle with loneliness and Imposter Syndrome

From Henry V to Citizen Kane, the story of the lonely leader is not a new one, but the turbulence of modern business is making it worse, with increasing evidence of Imposter Syndrome creeping in too.

This powerful cocktail of driven self-doubt and isolation is taking its toll.

How do we recognise the symptoms? Who is likely to suffer most? And what can we all do about it?

Article by:

Mark Wright

There is a blessing and a curse to being in the most senior seats of any business. 

The golden opportunity to wear the crown, to feel the power, to finally pull the levers and do things the way you want to. 

And then comes the dawning realisation that you no longer have anybody to confide in and a creeping fear that you are going to be found out.

It’s a bitter truth that is hidden in the dark corners of senior leadership psyches; often ignored, fought against or pushed away. Locked down and masked by bravado and positional power.

In our coaching work with senior leaders we are noticing these two threads coming to the fore more often: a powerful cocktail of Senior Leadership Loneliness and Imposter Syndrome.

It is leaving CEO’s and senior leaders feeling isolated, anxious and with a sense of nowhere to turn. That pent up mental stress is certainly not healthy for the individual but it radiates outwards, subtly affecting the senior leadership team and ultimately cascading into the culture of the whole organisation.

So let’s consider a number of things here:

What is Leadership Loneliness?

Senior leadership and CEO loneliness is attracting more and more attention in organisational psychology and leadership studies and it is entirely understandable. In our VUCA and BANI world of rapid change, uncertainty and ambiguity, senior leaders feel exposed, scrutinised and judged like never before. 

Many senior leaders in business carry with them a perception that they need to make perfect decisions, be role models and create simplicity out of complexity; all with supreme confidence and clarity.

And at the same time, show no vulnerability or know who they can truly trust.

Which is all exacerbated by pressure from investors, shareholders and social media… the list goes on…

So let’s break this down a little.

What gets us to the point of Leadership Loneliness?

Only Room for One: the most obvious point is that traditional hierarchies and office politics make it a hard-fought paradox; to attain the throne and then be unsure about who resents you, who is protecting their territory or who might even be plotting against you. It becomes really tough for CEO’s who begin to feel isolated from peers; there seem to be fewer and fewer people with whom they can share concerns and challenges without fear of judgment or repercussions.

Where the Buck Stops: tough decisions, dealing with conflict and complexity, and shouldering ultimate responsibility are the day to day reality for CEO’s and this pressurised war of attrition is unrelenting. Usually, nobody else is going to make these decisions and in an “always on” environment, the cadence is rapid, even though research suggests that loneliness impairs decision-making abilities and hinders strategic thinking.

The Heat of the Kitchen: the broader leadership culture of an organisation significantly influences the extent to which senior leaders experience loneliness. Cultures that prioritise transparency, open communication, and collaboration are more likely to mitigate feelings of isolation among CEOs and senior executives but this really takes conscious effort to shift.

A Question of Gender: research indicates that gender plays a role in how senior leaders experience loneliness, with female CEOs in particular, facing unique challenges. Gender bias and stereotyping is still rife in many business cultures, albeit more subtle than it has been in the past, exacerbating feelings of isolation in the Boardroom, for women and other under-represented groups.

Leadership Loneliness is not a new phenomenon; William Shakespeare’s Henry IV protests “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” whilst Henry V dedicates a whole soliloquy to his loneliness just the night before the Battle of Agincourt.

In 1941, Orson Welles presented a more up to date insight into the harsh realities of it in his classic film, Citizen Kane, in which Charles Foster Kane rises from humble beginnings to become a powerful newspaper tycoon. Despite his wealth, success, and power, Kane’s life is indelibly marked by profound loneliness.

“It’s no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want is to make a lot of money.”

Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

To this end, Citizen Kane is a challenging exploration of a certain type of leadership and at its very core is a warning about the toll that loneliness and isolation can take on even the most successful and powerful individuals.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

The concept of Imposter Syndrome was first described by psychologists Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in 1978. They published a paper titled “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” and described Imposter Syndrome (in their inevitably academic way) as an “experience of intellectual fraudulence despite measured success manifesting in denial of one’s competencies, fear of failure, perfectionism, and difficulty owning and enjoying success.”

Clance and Imes focused on the experiences of high-achieving women but subsequent research has clearly shown that Imposter Syndrome affects individuals of any gender and background. Equally, back in the later 1970’s, the full impact of deeply embedded societal biases (racism, socio-economic status, homophobia etc) were not acknowledged and considered in the way that they would be now. 

Imposter Syndrome is often talked about as being the problem of the individual, without taking into account the social and cultural realities that contrive to make people feel this way. 

As with the social model of disability (as opposed to the “medical model of disability”) the argument here turns the paradigm about this syndrome on its head and questions why our business cultures should make people feel like imposters. This shouldn’t be my “problem” that I have to fix, if the context is creating those conditions in the first place.

Arguably we are doing everybody a dis-service if we address individual symptoms whilst perpetuating a culture that makes people feel like imposters.

Whilst we need to take responsibility for our own context-shaping, we should certainly shift away from placing all the onus on the individual towards challenging the systemic, hard-wired discrimination, pressure and bias still evident in many leadership environments.

Focus on fixing the culture that creates the situation – and this then becomes a question of leadership.

Who is likely to suffer most?

Imposter Syndrome has an impact on people from all walks of life, regardless of background, occupation, or level of success. However, in the context of this blog, which is looking at senior leadership, these are some particular groups to consider:

High Achievers: highly accomplished or successful individuals, academics or creatives; living with the pressure to maintain high standards and the fear of not living up to expectations.

Talent in Transition: leaders who are transitioning to new roles or industries; navigating unfamiliar territory and adjusting to new expectations and responsibilities.

Perfectionists: they set extremely high standards for themselves; fear making mistakes or falling short of their own or others’ expectations; any deviation from perfection is experienced as a failure.

Highly Skilled Individuals in New Environments: senior technical experts when transitioning to new environments or taking on unfamiliar challenges; their confidence is often built on a foundation of subject matter leadership which is not as valuable as a currency in the new context.

Minority Groups: women, racial or ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, or individuals with disabilities all experience higher levels of Imposter Syndrome. They may feel like they have to work harder to prove themselves and can feel judged based on their identity rather than their abilities.

First-Generation Professionals: first-generation university graduates or professionals who are the first in their families to pursue certain career paths may experience a feeling of being out of place or not belonging in their chosen career. Even in senior leaders, this nagging legacy continues to have a significant impact.

What are the individual characteristics?

It is probably helpful to think of Imposter Syndrome as a contextual scale rather than a binary condition. Some people will feel it creeping into their lives more often and to a greater extent than others but for CEO’s and senior leaders it can feel unrelenting. 

Some of the common characteristics of Imposter Syndrome are:

  • Self-Doubt: I doubt my abilities and skills, even when I have evidence of success. I feel like a fraud and am going to be found out.
  • Attributing Success Elsewhere: it was good fortune, timing, or help from others rather than my competence and effort. I have difficulty accepting compliments or praise from others, usually dismissing or deflecting it.
  • Fear of Failure: I am petrified of failure or making mistakes, meaning I tend towards perfectionism and procrastination.
  • Overachieving: Despite feeling like a fraud, I overwork or overachieve in an attempt to prove my worth.
  • Comparing Myself to Others: compared to others, I feel inadequate or inferior, even when objectively we are equally accomplished.
  • High Expectations: I set excessively high standards for myself and feel disappointed or inadequate when I fall short.
  • Suffering in Silence: I suffer in silence, afraid to seek help or support.

What are the organisational characteristics?

If you are the lonely CEO or a senior leader of an organisation, and have recognised some of your behaviours in the list above, just pause for a moment.

Before jumping straight into that list and thinking about how you are going to fix it, consider these questions instead: 

What is it about our organisational context that is making me feel this way?

What must we do to shift our culture so that nobody feels like a lonely imposter?

It is within your gift to make that difference.

And this is where you can start looking in order to move the needle:

Get much better at feedback and recognition: when organisations fail to provide regular and constructive feedback (and I mean weekly, monthly conversations), leaders struggle to accurately assess their performance. Without acknowledgment of contributions and achievements, leaders feel as though they are not living up to expectations, fuelling imposter feelings.

Set more realistic expectations: overly ambitious or unrealistic goals for leaders, without adequate support or resources, contributes to feelings of helplessness. When leaders are striving to meet unattainable standards, they will inevitably experience heightened anxiety and loneliness.

Foster a culture of [im]perfectionism: where mistakes are not tolerated and only flawless performance is valued, you will exacerbate the problem. Build a culture of curiosity, exploration and “appropriate imperfection” because the fear of making errors or falling short of perfection is paralysing for leaders.

Stop unhelpful peer comparisons: fostering pointless and toxic competition intensifies Imposter Syndrome; find a more mature, sophisticated way to lead because even the most resilient members of your business will begin to feel inadequate, especially when the comparisons are unfounded or unfair.

Improve Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: if you don’t have a vibrant and robust culture of diversity, equity or inclusion you are reinforcing imposter feelings amongst under-represented leaders. When individuals do not see others who share their background or experiences in leadership positions, they question whether they truly belong or deserve to be there.

Trust and get out of the way: leaders who are exposed to micromanagement or have limited autonomy in decision-making feel as though their skills and expertise are not trusted or valued. Leaders will be both resentful and doubt their ability to lead effectively.

Address mental health: if you do not highlight and encourage mental health and well-being conversations, then you are contributing to the problem. Without access to resources and support for managing stress, anxiety, and self-doubt, leaders will struggle to cope, bringing significant personal challenge as well as organisational turbulence.

8 ways to tackle the thoughts of the lonely imposter CEO…

I have set out a list here of actionable ideas for the lonely imposter CEO; some are personal, some are organisational, all are do-able:

  1. Acknowledge and Challenge Unhelpful Thoughts: start by recognising when Imposter Syndrome is affecting your thoughts and actions. Whenever you catch yourself being self-deprecating or deflecting praise, just say “thank you” instead. Challenge your internal monologue with evidence of your accomplishments and skills.
  1. Set Realistic Goals: OK, so this one might be tricky as a CEO but the discipline of breaking down your goals into smaller, achievable tasks is still a helpful one.
  1. Cultivate Self-Compassion: be kinder to yourself; give yourself a break, especially during moments of self-doubt or failure. Remember that making mistakes and experiencing setbacks are normal parts of the learning process, so discuss them and learn from them.
  1. Seek Feedback and Support: get actionable, accurate and timely feedback from mentors, colleagues, or friends whom you trust. Hearing positive feedback is not something that happens much in more senior roles so take it when you can, and use constructive criticism to validate your skills and be curious about improvement.
  1. Adopt a Growth Mindset: viewing challenges and failures as opportunities for learning and development is not always easy but instead of striving for perfection, prioritise continuous improvement and growth. Celebrate progress, no matter how small, and recognise that growth always involves stepping out of your comfort zone.
  1. Mitigate Loneliness: Build a micro-culture to address your CEO loneliness and support the well-being of your senior leaders; fostering a culture of inclusivity and vulnerability. Encourage peer networking and mentoring, build a confidential peer network that is external to your business.
  1. Build Thriving Mechanisms: create rigorous and trusted “thriving mechanisms” (not just coping) to deal with loneliness in your role; create a discipline around “social selfishness” – make time for a collaborative sport, community group or social activity. 
  1. Professional Support: Executive Coaching conversations with an experienced professional can be a liberating and genuinely enjoyable experience. Working with a coach, who acts independently and confidentially, provides dedicated and structured support in a way that is distinct from conversations with colleagues. Coaching is a mainstream support activity, widely recognised as a critical performance driver for CEO’s and senior leaders.

When you want to find out more about the work we are doing with CEO’s and senior leaders all over the world, helping create high performance, do get in touch.

We are ready when you are.

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