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How Developing Leaders Find Authenticity — and Authority

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Winning a promotion to a business leadership role is usually seen as a confidence booster, but for some people, it raises internal doubts that might ultimately undermine job performance.

Business psychologists call this phenomenon “imposter syndrome,” a term first used by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes 40 years ago. It has affected a surprising number of successful executives in Silicon Valley as they’ve developed into leaders.

“I felt like I was the dumbest person in the room at every meeting,” wrote Mike Kail recently of his experience when he was promoted to chief technology officer of Yahoo in 2014. “I was fortunate enough to have inherited a tremendous set of direct reports, but their competency made me start to feel as if they would be better suited for the role than I was.”

The problem, experts note, is that feeling like an intellectual fraud can hamper actual job performance if these feelings persist. The issue can be exacerbated by the need to keep up with rapid technological change, as well as the increasing pressure to present a high-profile public identity on social media.

Imposter syndrome is typically experienced by people who are high-achieving, who set lofty standards for themselves and yet also evaluate themselves very harshly, according to Ilene Wasserman, head executive coach for the Advanced Management Program at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. It’s also quite common. About 70 percent of executives experienced it during at least one point in their career, researchers Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander wrote in the International Journal of Behavioral Science in 2011. They also found that the problem was more pronounced among high-achieving women.

Emerging leaders’ worries that they lack the required skills in a new position may also be more common in a tech-oriented economy where engineers, programmers, or other specialists suddenly find themselves in broader management roles and dealing with company-wide strategy. Success as an executive may depend on skills such as public speaking or the ability to think strategically about dealing with regulators, investors, or workforce issues, says Michael Useem, a management professor who heads the Center for Leadership and Change Management at Wharton. Imposter syndrome may arise when new leaders face an unexpected array of challenges.