CEO: I’m an Imposter

More than seven in 10 top bosses tell Korn Ferry they sometimes feel they’re not equipped to handle the job. Why?

They took on all the tough assignments. They grew profits and cut costs. They went from managing a couple of people to overseeing workforces in the thousands. Just looking at their career progression, one would expect CEOs to have every reason to exude confidence. 

And yet, when you ask them, 71% of US CEOs say they feel like imposters, wondering if they’re stretched too thin to handle the job. Experts say the sheer quantity of responsibilities, including satisfying investors, transforming the business, and, increasingly, speaking out on social issues, has many CEOs occasionally feeling overwhelmed. “You’re squeezing both ends of the balloon, and also the middle,” says Mark Arian, CEO of Korn Ferry Consulting.

This statistic is one of the highlights of Korn Ferry’s Workforce 2024, a soon-to-be-released analysis surveying more than 10,000 employees across the world, including 400 CEOs. A similar percentage of CEOs in India agreed that they have imposter syndrome. Some 57% of Middle Eastern CEOs felt the same way, as did slightly under half of UK and Australian bosses. 

The higher up the corporate ladder someone gets, the more acutely they feel imposter syndrome. Sixty-five percent of senior executives affirmed that they suffer from imposter syndrome, versus only 33% of early-stage professionals. 

More broadly, 47% of all employees—49% of men and 44% of women—feel both that they have imposter syndrome and are stretched beyond their abilities. Thirty-one percent disagree. Sixty-two percent of workers in clean technology said they had imposter syndrome, the highest percentage of workers in any industry. By contrast, only 31% of workers in travel, hospitality, and leisure felt the same way.

In the case of CEOs, Arian and others say it’s not a matter of leaders feeling incapable. Indeed, 85% said their professional experiences and career progression give them confidence that they can do the job. Instead, the bigger issue is that the current crop of CEOs is facing a massive number of challenges simultaneously. The need to perform and transform their organizations, to be culture carriers, to figure out the role of artificial intelligence in their organization, to navigate geopolitical challenges, and even to navigate how and where employees work—all of these issues at once, and more—are on many CEOs' plates. 

Feeling out of one’s depth is not uncommon, experts say. Kevin Cashman, vice chairman of Korn Ferry’s CEO and Enterprise Leadership practice, said he was surprised that only 71% of CEOs said they suffer from imposter syndrome. He said further that feeling this way isn’t a problem in and of itself: “You want leaders to be both confident and humble—that’s the sweet spot of leadership.” Indeed, bosses who acknowledge they don’t know everything display high levels of emotional intelligence, experts say. “You look to the CEO for confidence, but they don’t have to have a poker face all the time, and that’s OK,” says Zach Peikon, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Global Marketing Officers practice.

Experts say there are several things CEOs can do if they occasionally feel like imposters. For one thing, they should ensure that they have senior leaders who work well together and can help them solve big problems. “Hire team members that push the CEO up, rather than people the CEO has to pull up,” says Jane Stevenson, global vice chair of Korn Ferry and global leader of its Board and CEO Succession practice. 

Also important: having someone in whom to confide. Stevenson says it’s helpful to have a spouse, partner, or trusted advisor with whom the CEO can let their guard down and speak candidly about their challenges. 


Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Leadership Consulting capabilities.