Everybody Experiences Impostor Syndrome—Strong Leaders Use it to Their Advantage

January 26, 2017


Do you ever secretly fear you’re in over your head at your job? If so you’re not alone. Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you don’t deserve to be where you are in life, and over 70% of the population has experienced it.

In 1938, John Steinbeck confessed to his diary “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” A year later, Grapes of Wrath was published, going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Last week I stood up in front of all 250 FreshBooks employees and admitted that sometimes, I feel like a fraud.

In all likelihood, this was not what they expected to hear from their CEO. But it’s important to know you’re both leading and following people who sometimes feel like impostors. There’s an upside too: I really believe embracing these feelings of self-doubt can make you a better leader.

Here are three ways impostor syndrome manifests and what to do about it:

1. You Feel Like a Fraud Because You Don’t Have All the Answers

Leaders will often find themselves in situations they’ve never encountered before. Even if they have the necessary skills to arrive at a solution, they may find themselves stumped when they don’t have easy answers at the ready.

What to Do About It: Think In Problems, Not Solutions

Hit the brakes! When faced with something unfamiliar slow down, and spend more time articulating problems. Enumerating solutions before you are clear on the problem leads to poor results. Not to mention immediately trying to find a solution can be overwhelming and intimidating—especially when the self-doubt and inadequacy creep in.

Instead, think in problems: How did we get here? Why is the current solution not working? What are the characteristics of a good solution to this problem?

If you work your way through those questions, not only will you get a good grasp of the situation, you will be better equipped to recognize the right solution. Plus focusing on problem definition instead of solutions brings other benefits:

  • You can involve others in defining the problem, so you don’t feel alone
  • Together, you and your team will be clear on the problem you want to solved
  • You can uncover and address the root cause of the issue
  • When ready, brainstorming solutions collaboratively creates buy-in for implementation

Don’t have an immediate solution? Don’t sweat it. Trust that you can lead your team toward solutions if you first think in problems.



2. You Begin to Doubt Your Own Ability

Second guessing that decision you made? Receive praise that you think is unwarranted? Mistrusting yourself is one of the most common feelings caused by impostor syndrome.

What to Do About It: Place Trust In Others & Build Team Spirit

While an outcome of impostor syndrome is mistrusting yourself, that same mistrust can make you more humble – a feeling I think is worth embracing. Humility is an important and often overlooked, leadership quality. Humble leaders tend to be more open to other’s opinions, and more willing to admit mistakes.

A leader who has all the answers doesn’t leave room for anyone else. And that can leave people feeling like their opinions don’t matter.

In contrast, great leaders are receptive to input from others, and transparent about their mistakes — which helps others learn from them, and builds trust among your team. When in doubt ask: “I don’t know, what do you think?”

3. What If These Feelings of Self Doubt Are Proven to be True?

If you’re living with the overwhelming feeling of being a fraud, chances are the fear of people discovering that you don’t know what the heck you’re doing is high up on your list.

FreshBooks turns invoice lemons into lemonade – get started for free

What to Do About It: Acknowledge You Are An Impostor and Get Over the Fear of Making Mistakes

The fact is there are times when you probably are an impostor. As a self-employed professional you’ll do many things for the first time. But there’s no better way to learn than wrestling a new problem to the ground. And learning is something you should never expect to be “done” with. To keep growing and developing, embrace the fact that, yes, you sometimes are an impostor and you’ll definitely end up making some mistakes.

I’ve never been a CEO before, and I’ve never hidden the fact that I’ve made some mistakes along the way. Just like any small business owner, I’ve had to learn on the job as I went with both product and people.

Mistakes are a teacher in disguise. When the answer to something isn’t clear the only thing to do is give it your best guess, test that guess for a reliable amount of time, gather information and use this to inform the next best guess. Mistakes create a feedback loop in which information is evolved and knowledge is grown.

So, Impostor Syndrome is Actually an Opportunity in Disguise

I’m not here to convince you that you should enjoy feeling Impostor Syndrome. It’s not an enjoyable experience. But if you are committed to growing yourself and your career, you need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. You need to commit to stretching beyond the repeated things that you’ve already done with great success.



Along the way, you’ll experience self-doubt, for sure. But learn to read this as a sign you’re pushing yourself in ways that can deliver great payoffs.

Trust me—this mindset is what separates good leaders from great ones.

Versus Goliaths is a monthly series of leadership lessons by FreshBooks co-founder and CEO, Mike McDerment. As he journeyed from freelancer to CEO, Mike learned many lessons along the way. Now, he hopes to help other small business owners who are growing their businesses and learning as they go.


about the author

Co-Founder & CEO, FreshBooks Mike is the co-founder and CEO of FreshBooks, the world’s #1 cloud accounting software for self-employed professionals. Built in 2003 after he accidentally saved over an invoice, Mike spent 3.5 years growing FreshBooks from his parents’ basement. Since then, over 10 million people have used FreshBooks to save time billing, and collect billions of dollars. A lover of the outdoors, Mike has been bitten so many times it’s rumored he’s the first human to have developed immunity to mosquitoes.