James Plummer appeared to have it all. At 46 he was the youngest FTSE 100 CEO of his generation and his aura of invincibility was almost tangible. Able to grasp complex issues rapidly his decisions were always sound and, under his steady leadership, DeltaBank prospered.
With a beautiful wife, three children in private school, a house in Chiswick and a flat in Paris he was the envy of all who met him. His confidence knew no bounds.
So it came as a complete shock to everyone, not least James himself, when one day he suddenly broke down. Chairing a meeting of board members he simply stopped functioning. Speech failed him, his vision blurred and he started sweating profusely. At first it was assumed he was having a heart attack but tests indicated otherwise and, in hospital, it was a psychiatrist who pronounced he was suffering from acute anxiety.
It was six months before he was able to return to work. During this time his therapist explained that, as he had sailed through life, he’d avoided dealing with the issues that had confronted him. A sick mother when he was twelve. His parents divorcing. The death of his younger sister. He’d brushed these aside in his headlong pursuit to the top, banishing unwanted emotions to the darkest recesses of his mind.
No one was sure what triggered the collapse but all concluded it was inevitable. James admitted to the doctors, then to his wife, and finally to himself, that all his life it was as if he had been waiting to be found out. At every meeting, every presentation, every negotiation he half expected to be called a fraud, a man getting by on no more than bluster and a veneer of certainty.
‘Imposter syndrome,’ stated the therapist, ‘it’s quite common really, and surprising how many successful people experience it.’
Back at work, James developed strategies for minimising stress and, once more, he prospered. In his more reflective moments he realised that, painful though it had been, his breakdown had been a good thing. He was more sanguine about the vicissitudes of life now. More philosophical. More tolerant of those who appeared to be struggling.
But the imposter syndrome stayed with him and he realised that one day he would need to reveal to his conscious mind the deepest memories that still threatened to ambush him at every turn.
He continued with therapy but it was his mother who finally provided him with the elusive insight he had been seeking for so long.
On her death bed she craned her neck and pulled him to her.
‘There’s something I’ve always wanted to tell you,’ she said, ‘but could never find the right moment.’
He waited; expectant, fearful.
‘Your dad was not your real father. Your true father was from overseas – a one night stand.’
The room was losing focus, James’s vision was blurring again.
‘When dad discovered, he left us,’ she whispered, ‘he said he couldn’t live with an imposter.’