Why The Empress Has No Clothes
By | Nov 11, 2011
An African-American woman from a family of very modest means, I had, through hard work and perseverance, pulled myself up to unprecedented heights in Corporate America, becoming the first Black woman officer of a Fortune 500 corporation.
After twenty-five years in business, I made the transition to public service, taking on the role of President and CEO of Girls Inc., the national nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold. I serve on several high-powered corporate boards. Even in my personal life, I have been successful, marrying my companion of many years when I was in my fifties. On the inside, however, for most of my life, every success had cost me dearly in self-doubt, which sometimes verged on panic. With every new step up came the familiar fear that this time I would finally be discovered for the impostor I felt myself to be. And that fear drove me to work even harder, to accomplish more, to prove again and again that I deserved to be where I was. The panic was always accompanied by a strange whisper:
“The Empress has no clothes. The Empress has no clothes.” I was so used to it, and it summed up my feelings so well, I didn’t even question what it meant. But as I began to investigate the impostor syndrome and the role it had played in my life, I revisited the whisper and decided to take a closer look at its message. I went back and reread Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. What I, as most of us, remembered about the famous fable was that the vain Emperor goes parading through his realm naked because neither he nor any of his people want to admit that they cannot see the new “suit” the knavish weavers “made” for him. What struck me now, however, was the clothes’ purported magical quality: “[The weavers] proclaimed that they knew how to weave cloth of the most beautiful colors and patterns, the clothes manufactured from which should have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who was unfit for the office he held, or who was extraordinarily stupid.”
In the story, it is the fear of being seen as unfit for one’s office or as being stupid that keeps everyone, except an innocent child, silent. I recognized that fear immediately as the one I had encountered so frequently throughout my life—the terror of being unmasked as an impostor “unfit” for my post. It was the fear that had kept me from speaking out, had insisted that I work twenty-hour days, had whispered in my ear that I did not deserve the promotions and recognition. I began discussing the impostor syndrome with other successful people I know and found that CEOs and other senior level people, male and female, also struggle with this issue, even though from the outside no one would know it. That is why I have created this community: So that we know that we are not alone, and so that we can share our techniques for quieting those undermining voices and experience the joy, zest, and power we deserve.