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Self-Efficacy, Self-Confidence, and the Inflating Ego

People follow confident leaders. If a leader lacks confidence in themselves and in their ability to discern threats and see opportunities, followers will look elsewhere for someone who can seize the initiative and achieve success. Self-efficacy, therefore, is a good leadership trait. However, it is only good if it is true.


Self-efficacy underpins one’s decisions. Leaders who believe in themselves as a leader, one with their supporters’ best interests at heart, can be more confident in their ability to handle pressure to perform and tackle ethical dilemmas. These traits empower a leader to unlock their potential, their followers' potential, and the potential of their organization.[1] They have a greater capacity for professional growth as they better understand their capabilities and identities. As they operate and prepare themselves to lead others, they visualize themselves in successful scenarios and rehearse them in their minds. This visualization provides them with a complimentary guide and support for performance,[2] making for more competent leaders.

Mark Scullard is the senior director of product innovation at Wiley. They provide learning experiences and training on social and emotional skills to help people, be they in leadership, management, sales, etc., through products such as Everything DiSC and The Five Behaviors. In my interview with Scullard, he stated that emotional intelligence was a prerequisite for self-awareness in a leader.[3] Emotional intelligence has basically two aspects. One, it is a leader’s knowledge and management of their own emotions. Two, it is their knowledge and management of the emotions of followers in handling the leader-follower relationship.[4] Leaders with greater levels of emotional intelligence make higher-quality decisions based on logical solutions rather than on office politics. Scullard also said that high emotional intelligence leads to less stress for the strategic leader, as they are better able to deal with situations effectively.[5]

Benefits of High Self-Esteem

With success comes confidence. Leaders who experience success will rely more heavily on their decisions to drive the organization. With self-esteem comes greater persistence. This helps leaders weather the stresses of the modern, unpredictable, and fast-moving operating environment. Leaders who believe in their abilities will not feel the effects of failure as much as leaders with low self-esteem.[6] Even negative feedback will be taken as constructive. In fact, a confident leader will be more likely to take that negative feedback and use it as motivation to improve their behavior.[7]

Confident leaders with high levels of self-efficacy and self-esteem can be successful executives. In an interview I conducted with a senior executive for the federal government involved in executive resources and talent management, I was enlightened to a new concept he referred to as ‘balcony reflections.’ He experienced working with a very senior level group of executives that concluded each meeting with a reflective examination of how they conducted their session. They would go around the room and ask; How did we work together as a team? How was our decision-making? Did we hear all perspectives? Was everyone encouraged to speak up? Is there anything someone didn't get a chance to share that they should? The leaders, even the most senior of the group, engaged with each other to ensure that all opinions, not just theirs or the ones they wanted to hear, were heard.[8]

Self-Deception’s Contribution to Self-Esteem

If self-efficacy increases confidence and persistence, then it would make sense that leaders aspire to achieve self-efficacy and practice confidently in front of others. Self-efficacy, then, should be attained even if at a high cost. Some leaders may find shortcuts to reaching this goal. Rather than striving to openly review and understand their behavior and how it affects others, leaders may deceive themselves to mask their self-doubt. They may boost their self-esteem through self-deception and then convey this false confidence through successful impression management to reinforce the illusion of self-control.[9] Impression management can be thought of as how individuals present themselves to others so that they appear more favorably.[10]

Constructive, 360-degree feedback does little good if the recipient is not open to seeing this input for the benefits it can deliver. One with low self-efficacy may have a clouded view of how others perceive their leadership ability.[11] Cognitive biases also contribute to this delusion. If a leader believes they are more ethical than they are and think others see them as ethical, they may not know the reality of their own ethicality and will not see the need to improve. Ultimately, if they can’t see the need to improve, they will be less motivated to work on their shortcomings.[12]


William von Hippel is a psychology professor at the University of Queensland in Australia researching evolutionary psychology. Robert Trivers is an anthropology professor at Rutgers University specializing in social evolution, conflict, and cooperation. They examined self-enhancement and how self-deception feeds false self-confidence. Confidence, they explained, comes from an actual ability or achievement. If the confidence gained by a leader is based on a false sense of ability, and they thus view themselves as having the positive qualities they desire when they don’t possess them, they are able to display greater confidence. This unearned confidence may lead them to overconfidence and shallow social capital.[13]

Inflating the Self

One’s ego can become inflated when that person attributes success to themselves and their actions when it is not warranted. A leader who holds an inflated perception of themselves and a romanticized ideal of their leader-follower relationship may arrive at that opinion through attributional errors.[14] They attribute success to their actions and downplay the adverse outcomes that may result from their poor decisions.

The self-deceptive leader deceives themselves for personal gain; in this case, the personal reward is greater self-enhancement. This confidence may have a host of social and professional advantages that allow them to advance, although through unearned performances.[15] The self-deceptive leader who deceives themselves to prop-up their view of themselves as a person and as a leader exaggerates their positive contributions and downplays the consequences of their adverse decisions. They deflect blame for failure, downplay negative influences they may have contributed, and take credit for successes.[16]

Self-deceptive leaders can be this way because they are insecure. Scullard illustrated insecure leaders as those feeling they have to be in charge and be the center of attention. They feel they need to be in charge and must protect that feeling against real or perceived threats to their authority. When they feel threatened, they tend to distort incoming information to reassure themselves.[17]

Increasing a Leader’s Self-Efficacy

Real confidence comes from success and superior performance. These elements reflect competence, something a leader must have to lead an organization effectively.[18] The success, though, must be honest and supported by an accurate assessment of the contributing forces. A leader who formally assesses their behavior and listens objectively to feedback from others has a better chance of achieving higher self-efficacy. Through an evidence-based approach to self-discovery, leaders can increase their capabilities to lead, learn, and grow. Accurate self-assessment leads to a better understanding of what one loves to do and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Such leaders are better equipped to listen to their consciences and heed real market indicators.[19] What distinguishes a good leader from a bad may boil down to one’s commitment to learning and applying the knowledge gained.

Organizations want leaders at the helm who are confident. This confidence, however, must be genuine. It must be grounded in an accurate appraisal of one’s professional acumen and not based on poor self-assessment.


  • leaders with high self-esteem and high self-efficacy are confident in their abilities to lead

  • if self-confidence is achieved under false pretenses, the leader may become overconfident in their leadership abilities

[1] Caldwell & Hayes (2016) [2] Bandura (1993) [3] Scullard, M., in discussion with the author (February 2021) [4] Mathew & Gupta (2015) [5] Scullard, M., in discussion with the author (February 2021) [6] Faizullarv (2006) [7] Pienaar & Nel (2017) [8] Federal Government Senior Executive, in discussion with the author (February 2021) [9] Gray & Densten (2007) [10] Hooghiemstra (2000) [11] Taylor (2010) [12] Bazerman & Tenbrunsel (2011) [13] Von Hippel & Trivers (2011) [14] Gray & Densten (2007) [15] Von Hippel & Trivers (2011) [16] Baumeister et al. (1998) [17] Scullard, M., in discussion with the author (February 2021) [18] Sosik (2001) [19] Caldwell & Hayes (2016)

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