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Abstract

Self-confidence has two aspects: general self-confidence, which is a stable personality trait that develops in early childhood, and specific self-confidence, which is a changing mental and emotional state associated with the specific task or situation at-hand. We develop both types of self-confidence through automatic, mostly unconscious, internal dialogues whereby we make judgments about ourselves based on our experiences and others’ feedback. While both types of self-confidence profoundly affect our thoughts, emotions, and behavior, our levels of general self-confidence are important primarily in new and unusual circumstances while our specific self-confidence is pertinent to our everyday performance. High levels of both types are essential for effective leadership and enable the leader to influence his collaborators, or followers, to build task-specific self-confidences that can strengthen their job performance. This chapter includes instructions for a conscious mental process called self-leadership, which effective leaders routinely employ and through which we each can learn to positively influence our internal dialogues so that we, too, can build on our innate abilities and develop specific self-confidences to do what we choose.
Leadership and Self-Confidence
Chapter 17 in
Leadership Today: Practices for Personal and Professional Performance,
Joan Marques and Satinder Dhiman, eds., Springer, 2017
Ruth H. Axelrod
Granite State College
raxelrod@gwmail.gwu.edu
603-856-8377
Summary
Self-confidence has two aspects: general self-confidence, which is a stable personality trait that
develops in early childhood, and specific self-confidence, which is a changing mental and
emotional state associated with the specific task or situation at-hand. We develop both types of self-
confidence through automatic, mostly unconscious, internal dialogues whereby we make
judgements about ourselves based on our experiences and others’ feedback. While both types of
self-confidence profoundly affect our thoughts, emotions and behavior, our level of general self-
confidence is important primarily in new and unusual circumstances while specific self-confidence
is pertinent to our every-day performance. High levels of both types are essential for effective
leadership and enable the leader to influence his collaborators, or followers, to build task-specific
self-confidences that can strengthen their job performance. The chapter includes instructions for a
conscious mental process called self-leadership, which effective leaders routinely employ and
through which we each can learn to positively influence our internal dialogues so that we, too, can
build on our innate abilities and develop specific self-confidences to do what we choose.
Objectives
1. To be able to define self-confidence, distinguish the two types and explain the roles that they
play in our lives.
2. To be able to describe how self-confidence is developed and maintained in childhood and
beyond.
3. To be able to explain the role that self-confidence plays in effective leadership.
4. To be able to describe how a self-confident leader can directly and indirectly affect his or her
subordinates, helping them maximize their performances.
5. To be able to practice self-leadership.
Introduction
The ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, who wrote about leadership in his troubled times,
observed that confidence is a person’s greatest friend. Modern leadership researchers generally
agree, since most of those who have focused on the leader’s personality traits include self-
confidence in their lists of what makes leaders effective.1 In fact, a review study found, in 2002,
that in the ten existing reviews of research on leadership traits, self-confidence was the only trait
that appeared in a majority (eight) of the lists.2 Even scholars who focus on leader behaviors or
leader-follower relationships generally include self-confidence in their discussions.3
This chapter discusses the nature of self-confidence, how it affects both leaders and their
collaborators, or followers, and how a person can strengthen and maintain it.
1
The Nature of Self-Confidence
As with many psychological constructs, scholarly as well as popular definitions of self-confidence
vary considerably, with most people describing it as how we feel about ourselves and our
capabilities. For the purposes of this chapter, it is defined as an individual’s level of certainty about
his or her ability to handle things. Self-confidence is formed through complex internal processes of
judgement and self-persuasion4 whereby we attach meaning to our personal experiences--
particularly our successes and failures in past performances--and comprehend others’ reactions to
us.5 Thus, it involves sense-making6 whereby we learn to understand ourselves and create
expectations of our future performances. Some psychologists conceptualize our resulting beliefs as
a continuum with high self-confidence at one end and uncertainty at the other.7
We experience self-confidence in two different forms—as a stable personality trait of general self-
confidence —e.g., “I know that I will do well in any job for which I am qualified”--and as a variable
state of task-specific self-confidence—e.g., “I can help with the research but I am not good at
creating PowerPoint presentations.”
General Self-Confidence: A Personality Trait
Our level of general self-confidence has to do with our beliefs and judgments about our ability to
do well irrespective of the task or context. It develops early in our lives, within the contexts of our
families and other social environments such as daycare and kindergarten,8 as an aggregate of our
judgements and feelings about our capabilities and, therefore, ourselves.9 These early childhood
self-assessments become part of our personalities and, so, are highly resistant to change.10 In
consequence, the level of general self-confidence that we each acquire in childhood remains fairly
stable over our lifetime. For example, if Antonio is repeatedly told that he is stupid when he fails in
various tasks, he will tend to develop a low level of general self-confidence while Maryam, who is
told that he has the ability to do anything that she wants, develops a high level.
Specific Self-Confidence: A State of Mind
Our level of specific self-confidence reflects our beliefs and feelings about our ability to do a
specific task that we are facing at a particular point in time. Like general self-confidence, specific
self-confidence is built primarily on our judgments about our performances. However, unlike
general self-confidence it is a state of mind that alters in some way after almost every new
experience.11 Both Antonio and Maryam will gradually gain confidence as they learn to do a
specific task and succeed in performing it, but when they fail, their task-specific confidence may
wane.
The Interaction of General and Specific Self-Confidence
People with a high level of general self-confidence find it easier to enter into new environments and
take on new tasks than do people with low general self-confidence12 So, on the first day of their
new jobs, Antonio may feel more anxious and uncertain than does Maryam who, with high general
self-confidence, is better equipped to develop the new specific self-confidences that are required.
However, at the end of their successful probation periods, both are likely beginning to develop a
sense of competence relative to the tasks they perform, and that affects their immediate behavior far
more than do their general levels of self-confidence. Specific self-confidence supports our ability to
2
deal with recurrent and familiar problems though general self-confidence affects our ability to cope
with the unknown.13
Thus, with regard to self-confidence, at least, it is fair to say that eight decades of formal leadership
research has demonstrated that leaders are both born and made.
Case # 1. Speaking Truth to Power
Rachael was the new administrative manager of a special unit in a hospital. One
morning, the ward clerk ran into her office, saying, “Dr. Smith is yelling at Carol in
front of a patient!” Though anxious about facing this formidable senior physician,
Rachael hurried to the patient’s room, sized up the situation, grabbed Carol’s arm
and drew her toward the door, saying, “I am sorry, Dr. Smith, but I need Carol in my
office immediately.” Astounded, he followed.
Once both were in her office with the door closed, he turned on Rachael, saying
angrily, “How dare you interfere with patient care!” “I am sorry for interrupting,”
Rachael replied, “But, in the future, if you feel you need to shout at Carol, I will be
happy to vacate my office so that you can do so in private. Your patient is dependent
on his nurse around the clock and you may have just damaged his confidence in her,
which is not to your patient’s benefit, Doctor.” He glared, turned on his heal and
left.
Rachael sat down, before her knees could cave in and took a deep breath. Carol
gave her a quick hug and left. Rachael immediately called her boss, Dr. Rand, to
explain what had happened before he heard Dr. Smith’s version. She later learned
that Dr. Smith had complained about her but Dr. Rand had supported her actions.
Several weeks later, hospital scuttlebutt maintained that Dr. Smith had stopped
shouting at nurses throughout the hospital.
1. What factors made Rachael willing to challenge Dr. Smith’s authority and
how were they each relevant to her decision and actions?
2. How would you have handled this situation, and why?
The Self-Confident Leader
Self-confidence plays a role in every aspect of a leader’s thoughts, feelings, behavior, relationships
and job performance,14 through an internal psychological mechanism called self-leadership.
Self-Leadership: A Meta-Skill
As we go about our daily lives, we continually receive incoming sensory data that we must process
in our minds before we can make sense of it. This automatic and largely unconscious activity draws
on all our internal resources—including our values, beliefs, assumptions and expectations (VABEs),
memories, attitudes and motivations—to assess the input and determine what it means for us.15
Thus, our conclusions are, in part, shaped by personality traits such as self-confidence.
3
The practice of self-leadership enables us to influence those conclusions by consciously inserting
selected information into the deliberative process; in other words, by attempting to persuade
ourselves of something that we want to believe. For example, after we fail at a task, most of us
automatically berate ourselves but if we practice self-leadership, we can observe that we failed only
because it was a learning experience and assure ourselves that we will succeed next time.
Articulating this causal attribution and positive expectation helps guide our thoughts in a
constructive direction and manage our emotions, emotions,16 so it helps builds task-specific self-
confidence, which can enhance performance17 because people who believe they can perform well
tend to do better than those who expect to fail.18 It can also help us avoid over-confidence, which
develops through internal dialogues that focus solely on our successes, thus fostering unrealistic
beliefs and expectations.19
In short, self-leadership may be the leader’s single most important skill, an effective tool that can
help build task-specific self-confidence and, so, shape our internal life story to foster success.20 For
this reason, it is now being widely recommended in practitioner-oriented books, scientific journal
articles and leadership training programs.21
Effects of Self-Confidence on Leader Behaviors
Most effects of self-confidence are mediated by self-leadership but some are directly affected by the
leader’s belief in his competencies. Since both general and specific self-confidence influence these
self-beliefs, they were not distinguished in most of the research that is relevant to leadership.
Psychological Empowerment: Self-confidence plays a role in psychological empowerment by
influencing our willingness to take control of our work and function autonomously, being more or
less independent in our decision-making and behavior.22 For example, research shows that to
manage performance problems, self-confident managerial leaders tend to work directly with their
subordinates, using informal persuasion and supervisory power, while those with less confidence
may fall back on formal administrative processes and referrals “up the ladder.”23
Goal-Setting: Self-confidence is a prerequisite for embracing the risk of challenging the status quo,
which is what the best leaders often do.24 Leaders with strong self-confidence tend to have positive
expectations and, so, are willing to take risks that others might avoid.25 This allows them to accept
accountability, making difficult decisions and following them up with decisive action.26 The
willingness to take risks, coupled with their belief in their own competence, also prompts them to
set high, hard goals,27 which serve as a highly effective self-management technique because they
have been shown to maximize performance.28
Motivation and Persistence: Self-confidence also enhances motivation and engenders
persistence in pursuing goals. Even though he is not intrinsically motivated by a particular activity,
a self-confident leader will tend to demand of himself that he do it, and will do it well, thus
generating a goal and building commitment to a high level of performance.29 Our level of self-
confidence also affects our willingness to persist in a task when we fear failure. For example, in
situations where our known levels of achievement are not sufficient to achieve a particular goal,
people with strong self-confidence will heighten their level of effort and persistence while those
with low confidence may quickly give up.30 When the discrepancy between goals and achievements
is so large, however, that it undermines our specific self-confidence, people with high general self-
confidence will adjust their goal while low-confidence people tend to become discouraged and
abandon the goal altogether.31 (Also see Chapter_____. Motivation and Chapter _______.
Perseverance)
4
Management of Emotions: Self-leadership plays a role in helping us manage our emotions,32
particularly for self-confident people, so that we can distance ourselves from our feelings and view
them in perspective. It softens the blow when we fail, which is important because failure affects us
viscerally since confidence judgments shape our emotions as well as our rational thoughts.33
Through emotion management, self-confidence has a positive impact on a leader’s ability to
manage conflict.34 By helping a leader remain emotionally stable, containing his anxiety and anger
during difficult confrontations, it allows him to focus all his attention on positive, functional and
constructive language and approaches that will yield beneficial outcomes.35 In short, self-
confidence plays a role in emotional control, enabling leader to act, with honesty and integrity, in
reliable and adaptable ways.36 Self-control also enhances others’ perceptions of his abilities, while
lack of self-control tends to damage trust and commitment. (Also see Chapter _____. Emotional
Intelligence.)
Presence and Voice: Presence and voice are twin facets of how we present ourselves to the world.
The “right” presentation confers social status on a leader and, so, helps him win allies and rally
support.37 Though self-confidence is an internal attribute, it must always be evident in the leader’s
voice, words and physical mien, for example, in his use of persuasive arguments, rather than
coercion, to influence others.38
A display of self-confidence works in combination with other characteristics, such as assertiveness
and decisiveness, to generate so-called “executive presence,”39 which is comprised of a set of cues
that most people naively associate with leaderly strength and competence.40 The characteristics
associated with executive presence are inherently masculine, so it should come as no surprise that
the term is rarely applied to women.41 Modern workplaces, though, are demanding new patterns of
leadership behavior so both men and women are forging new styles of presence and voice.
Authenticity and Achievement: Leaders who have a strong sense of self-confidence tend to be
comfortable disclosing their personal values and beliefs.42 This enables them to act authentically
rather than hiding behind masks, as people with low self-confidence often do. When their driving
values are prosocial, such as treating everyone with respect and wanting to make the world a better
place, their work can become intrinsically spiritual and transforming,43 helping them reach their full
potential and raising the aspirations of those around them to achieve things beyond themselves.
(Also see Chapter ______. Spirituality.)
Case #2: Leading in Fits and Starts
Whenever Michael, the President of a large, urban teaching hospital announced that
he was going away for a few days to attend a managerial leadership workshop, his
managers exchanged knowing glances and mouthed the words, “Not again!” across
the room. On his return, they knew, he would insist that they stop what they were
doing and focus on implementing the new management model or practices that were
recommended in the workshop. And so it was--the old vision was clouded, priorities
shifted and they started on a new course once again.
Over time, the managers who wanted to accomplish lasting changes that would
improve the hospital experience for the patients and their families, and the
5
employees, lost their motivation and left. Those who remained were largely people
who were comfortable living with the status quo.
Questions:
1. How and why do you think the workshops affect Michael’s management
decisions?
2. What should his loyal managers do in this situation?
6
The Self-Confident Leader and His Collaborators
Self-confidence plays an important role in a leader’s ability to influence his collaborators’ thoughts,
emotions and behaviors,44 in large part, by bolstering his credibility, since credibility is a
cornerstone not only of leadership45 but also of trust.46 Thus, while it is important that a leader be
self-confident, it is imperative that collaborators perceive him that way.47
Confidence-Building
The GLOBE studies of culturally-relevant leadership attributes found that “confidence-builder” is
positively endorsed as a leadership characteristic in all of the numerous countries around the world
where its researchers conducted their local studies.48 Other research in the U.S. has demonstrated
that a leader’s self-confidence can enhance the confidence of his collaborators49 and, consequently,
their performance.50 Some leadership scholars even contend that fostering other people’s self-
confidence is one of the hallmarks of great leadership,51 and one of the most important tools for
individual and organizational transformation.52
Empowerment and Motivation
Employee empowerment is vital in all modern organizations, especially those that rely on creative
knowledge work such as architecture, economic development or technological innovation.53 Strong,
self-confident leaders empower collaborators by articulating expectations of high performance and
expressing confidence in their ability to achieve it.54 Empowered employees take initiative,
engaging in volitional behaviors that give them a sense of freedom and autonomy.55
Goals and Performance
Collaborative goal-setting by a leader and subordinate produces different effects depending on the
subordinate’s levels of both general and task-specific self-confidence. Those with strong self-
confidence will tend to choose higher goals and accept more difficult challenges, commit more
strongly, spend more effort and persist indefinitely in the face of difficulties,56 thus usually
achieving more than do those with low levels of confidence, who are more conservative in their
aspirations.57
How to Develop and Maintain Self-Confidence
As discussed above, though we cannot improve our level of general self-confidence, we can
dramatically increase our task-specific self-confidences through learning, practicing and
interpreting our performances in positive ways.58 Research has shown that conscious use of
following strategies and techniques can help us achieve mastery in a wide range of circumstances.59
1. Interpreting Our Performance Experiences
Information about our past performances, as we interpret it, has the strongest and most lasting effect
on our self-confidence, for better or worse.60 Our internal assessments generally take into
consideration the difficulty of the task, how much external aid we received and how much effort we
expended to achieve those performances.61 So it is only insofar as we credit ourselves, rather than
external agencies, with our successes that our memories of the experiences contribute, over time, to
a robust sense of self-confidence.
7
2. Monitoring Our Emotional and Physical States
Noticing the emotions triggered by thinking about or engaging in a task can help discern whether
our self-confidence about it is low or high. If we detect feelings of fear and self-doubt, for example,
anxiety is likely to follow. For physical activities, ranging from keyboarding to dancing at the
company gala, we tend to interpret our physical symptoms--such as high energy, fatigue or pain--as
indicators of our competence.62 Thus, managing our emotions and our physical output can help
improve our self-confidence for various tasks.
3. Heeding Our Cheerleaders
Other people play a crucial role in helping us build self-confidence (or not) by setting expectations,
evaluating our performances and helping us understand the reasons for our successes and failures,
as well as supporting us emotionally by celebrating wins and supporting us through losses.63 To be
effective, their input and feedback must be believable and explicitly credit our underlying ability to
do the task. It is most influential coming from people whom we perceive to have expertise and
prestige, as well as being credible and trustworthy,64 and it plays an important part in our self-
leadership dialogues.
Formal coaching is effective not only in sports but also in other areas of endeavor. So-called
“executive coaching” can increase a leader’s sense of efficacy65 so that he feels better equipped to
deal with the difficult aspects of his job;66 for this reason, many companies fund it for their senior
managerial-leaders. Typically, coaching involves personal goal-setting as well as feedback, since
both are required to achieve optimal performance, though any kind of evaluative feedback is more
helpful more none at all.67
4. Comparing Ourselves to Others
The less experience we have had in doing something, the more we rely on social comparison, or
modeling, to establish expectations of our own performance.68 We can best approximate our
capabilities by observing models who are similar to us in personal characteristics and general
experience.69 Seeing them achieve their goals through effort and persistence can be a powerful
source of aspiration and motivation. “If she can do it, so can I” is a common inference that can help
build our self-confidence sufficiently to launch us into a task.70 When our self-confidence is on the
wane, we also can benefit from examples of others’ courage, using it to strengthen and guide us.71
5. Reducing Our Performance Anxiety
Anxiety, or stress, negatively influences our self-beliefs about our ability to cope, so managing
anxiety is an important way to increase self-confidence in anxiety-prone situations such as
confronting an under-performing subordinate or giving a speech in public. We can mitigate the
anxiety by rehearsing the event in our imagination, as many experienced leaders regularly do (see
procedure in box_____). Over time, this builds confidence that we can cope with many kinds of
stressors. But if high anxiety is an omnipresent challenge, we would do well to consider formal
training in cognitive-behavioral coping skills.72
6. Practicing Positive Self-Leadership
8
The techniques described above are helpful only if we can use the information gained from them to
positively influence ourselves.73 This requires that we convince ourselves that we either have or can
acquire the skills needed to do the target task. If we believe that it requires an inherent aptitude--
such as boldness where we are shy, high intelligence where we are average, or a large accumulation
of knowledge that we do not possess--we will never persuade ourselves that it is doable.
One way to build our task-specific confidence is to rehearse the activity in our minds, generating
mental imagery of a successful performance.74 For example, we might rehearse a counseling
session in our minds, imagining things that the under-performing subordinate might say and
inventing appropriate responses, then concluding the session inspirationally. Then, when we get to
the actual session, we have already done it once and learned by the experience.
A second say is to engage in constructive self-talk.75 Both before and after doing a task,76 a well-
constructed series of affirmations and ego boosts can undercut our inner critic, reduce our anxiety
(even for those with perennial, trait-based anxiety77) and help us learn to trust our ability to achieve
success. Self-talk is most effective when we address ourselves by our given names in our internal
thoughts and directives. Avoiding the pronouns, “I” and “me,” helps distance us emotionally so that
we can focus on the task,78 working through our thoughts and feelings to rationally compare its
needs with our known aptitudes and skills.79 And afterwards, whether we succeeded or failed, it
helps us construct a confidence-building narrative to augment our accumulated experience.
9
PLACE IN BOX
How I Can Talk Myself Through a Challenging Task:80
A Lesson from Ryan
Ryan will sit back and take a few deep breaths, which will relax him. Ryan does not need to
be anxious because this is an easy task and he has already done something similar.
First, Ryan will go through the steps of the task in his mind. He has assembled the things
that he needs. Wow! This will be easier than he thought! The next step is to…
Now, Ryan is ready to do the actual task. The first step is just like he imagined. It really
came out well. The next step is more complicated but Ryan can do it. Oops! That does not
look right but now Ryan knows what it should look like so it will be easy to do.
It’s all done and it looks great! Ryan came through with flying colors! He messed up one
piece of it but now he knows how, so he won’t do that again. Let’s see what the boss thinks
about it.
Some of these techniques will probably be familiar as we all sometimes practice them consciously.
Others may feel odd, at first, but if we persist in practicing them, they can help us develop task-
specific self-confidences and, so, become more effective in all domains of our lives.
Discussion Questions
1. What are the two types of self-confidence described in this chapter and what role does each play
in our lives?
2. Consider a very recent experience where you failed to meet your own standards of excellence.
Did the failure impact your specific self-confidence? If so, how and why? If not, why not?
3. Think about a leader whom you have observed close-up, such as your boss, another manager,
officer, politician or religious leader. Do you think that he or she has a strong sense of general
self-confident or not? Drawing on the material in this chapter, as well as your own experience,
explain what led you to that conclusion.
4. You have been randomly assigned as the leader of a group of peers who have volunteered to
arrange an event for your club or class or school. What would you do to ensure that each of you
contributes as effectively as possible to the task?
5. Select one thing that you are not confident about doing but that you need to do either now or in
the near future. Jot down some ways that you can mentally prepare yourself for it, drawing on
the techniques described in the last section of this chapter.
10
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6 Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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9 Oney, E., & Oksuzoglu-Guven, G. (2015). Confidence: A critical review of the literature and an alternative
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10 Matthews, G., Deary, I. J., & Whiteman, M. C. (2003). Personality traits (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK:
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11 Demo, D. H. (1992). The self-concept over time: Research issues and directions. Annual Review of Sociology,
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12 Oney, E., & Oksuzoglu-Guven, G. (2015). Confidence: A critical review of the literature and an alternative
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116(1), 149-163.
13 Oney, E., & Oksuzoglu-Guven, G. (2015). Confidence: A critical review of the literature and an alternative
perspective for general and specific self-confidence. Psychological Reports: Mental & Physical Health,
116(1), 149-163.
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