Imposter syndrome, glass cliffs: 1 hospital CEO on tackling challenges

Two terms that have struck a nerve with Becker's audience in the past year are "imposter syndrome" and the "glass cliff." 

Imposter syndrome, or one's doubt of their own competency in their role, is experienced by 75 percent of female executives, according to one recent study. Meanwhile, the glass cliff describes a phenomenon in which women of color are chosen for high-level leadership positions and hidden expectations are placed upon them — they might be expected to single-handedly fix a company's culture or "clean up a mess they didn't create," as a November Fortune article put it. 

Jandel Allen-Davis, MD, president and CEO of Craig Hospital in Denver, connected with Becker's to discuss these issues, which largely affect female leaders and leaders of color.

Imposter syndrome

I've absolutely faced moments of imposter syndrome in my career. I think it is a normal reaction to new opportunities and challenges, and while it can be a motivator to learn and continue to work hard, it can also hold us back if we aren't mindful. I believe women executives think that in order to be effective, they must know about or have done 90 percent-plus of the perceived requirements to lead a function or organization, which isn't actually what is essential to leading effectively.

It is imperative that we remind ourselves that the most effective leaders inspire teams, set direction and vision, and collaborate with functional leaders and departments to do their best work on behalf of the organization. We should be surrounded by team members who possess the skills and leadership capabilities that make for excellence and complement our skills and capabilities. The highest and best use of our time should be focused on keeping mission central, removing barriers to effective performance, connecting dots in service to the development of great strategy, and providing the resources to assure that our institutions thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Imposter syndrome intensifies when we forget this and can be paralyzing. Our biggest challenge in fighting imposter syndrome is to try to see ourselves how the world sees us and truly believe that the successes we've had really did have something to do with us, while also being cautious to not view ourselves through an egocentric lens that can have one constantly wondering if they are doing the job well, instead of just doing the job.

Glass cliff

I'd never heard the concept of a glass cliff. While I haven't observed that women of color are brought in during times of crisis more frequently than men, I can say that women — and women of color — are often not given the same grace and space as their white male counterparts when things are tough or are not going well. If an organization is struggling and a woman is brought in or a crisis happens on her watch, it's likely that the organization will be less tolerant if they're unable to turn it around. This kind of inequity is not much different than what I've experienced in my life's walk. As an African-American woman, I've been told since I was young that I would have to work twice as hard to get half as many opportunities. I don't feel like a victim. I just know that this is a reality we will continue to face until society moves beyond stereotyping each other based on a host of ways we are different. 

How can we navigate when facing these so-called glass cliffs? I would gently recommend that you go into the tough situations open to the challenges. Trust that you were put here because you have the skills, and just know there is tremendous personal and professional growth on the other side of these situations. Pull your team together, do your homework and identify factors that have contributed to the problems as well as those factors that will enable and provide solutions. Then set about implementing an inclusive, measured and strategic plan to address issues. Be intentional and clear with your plan, communicate regularly and to all levels of the organization (and externally if necessary), and never be afraid to ask for help. I remember learning this phrase some years ago: "I have to do it myself and I can't do it alone." Make sure to use all the team resources at your disposal and act with heart and courage.  

I love Theodore Roosevelt’s "Man in the Arena" quote. It has steeled me in some of the most difficult things I have encountered. 

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

That's growth! I believe that working this way actually might work in many cases, and in the cases where it doesn't, we can say we did our best.

If you are a female executive with thoughts to share on this issue, please email them to

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