Terrified of Being Found Out? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a senior manager in a large and well known high tech organization. I keep my head down and stay clear on my goals. I do whatever it takes to make sure my people are successful. I have a reputation for being a good manager and I attract the best talent to my teams. I love my people—we have fun at work and get things done. And they keep promoting me. I can’t seem to mess up.

So what’s the problem? you might ask. The problem is this: I am crippled with doubt. My rise to success has been hard work, sure, but not heroic. I often wonder how I got so lucky. Why me? What if they figure out I am just some dorky kid who had no friends in middle school? I go to work every day literally thinking this is the day the other shoe will drop. Every time my boss reaches out to me, I think this is it—they found out I am really just me and it’s all over. My girlfriend tells me I am crazy, which really doesn’t help. The stress is taking a toll.

—Afraid to be Found Out

Oh, my dear Afraid,

My heart truly goes out to you. I can feel your pain, partially because I have felt it myself and so have most of my clients. You are suffering from something called imposter syndrome. It happens when successful people are unable to internalize their success and, instead, dismiss it as dumb luck—or worse, as some kind of mistake. I first witnessed this phenomenon when my former husband, a Broadway actor, worked with some seriously accomplished, famous people who admitted to him they felt like frauds who would be found out at any moment. Then, when I first started coaching, I blundered into a job working with a bunch of supermodels. Every single one of them was convinced that their success was pure fluke and totally unearned. They were beleaguered with insecurity.

So, here’s the thing. You have been lucky. Isn’t that great? Some people aren’t, some people are—and who can possibly say how that happens? Not me. It has not been my experience that we have any control over the lucky part. But we do have control over what we do with the hand we are dealt. And there, my dear Afraid, is where you have excelled. You have been dealt a good hand—after maybe a not-so-great one in middle school—and you have apparently been playing the heck out of it ever since. You obviously have enough brains to stay afloat in a high tech environment, because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have lasted this long. You also, evidently, care desperately about your people—and you know what? You can’t really teach that. That is a beautiful quality you came wired with and an unbelievably valuable asset.

So talk yourself off the ledge. You have been lucky and have also risen to the occasion and made the best of the opportunities presented to you. No one is trying to expose you as a phony. Your boss and your boss’s boss are depending on you to continue to show up, get the job done, and produce results—which you are doing. So get ready, because they are probably going to keep promoting you. You are going to have get your head wrapped around it. The beautiful thing about your worry is that it will keep you humble no matter how successful you become. And Jim Collins’s research on the best leaders shows that a mix of fierce resolve and humility is the most unbeatable combination of qualities a leader can possess.

So, Afraid, it seems you can’t lose for winning. I say enjoy it while it lasts! Keep doing good work and stop second guessing the fates. Finally, be grateful for your good fortune. Research shows that the practice of gratitude can reduce stress and potentially derail those negative thought patterns that can take their toll on the best of us.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard

Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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