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The Shackles of Leadership Self-Efficacy

Editorial introduction:

I’m very pleased to publish Chris’s blog which looks at a concept I’ve long been interested in, self-efficacy in leadership. After a short introduction to self-efficacy theory, Chris shares some of the findings from his doctoral research and puts forward a convincing argument for leadership coaching and mentoring. I like how Chris has brought in the related concept of confidence – including self-confidence – in this blog; he makes a plea for leaders to become confident ‘by design rather than chance.’ So, a key message for me from this blog is that self-efficacy – or confidence – can be developed, perhaps with the help of a leadership coach to support ‘playing out’ leadership tasks and duties within a safe space.

Thanks, Chris, for sharing your research with us! If you’d like to comment on this blog, then head over to Twitter and use the hashtag #BELMASblog.

– Suzanne

Chris Baker

The Shackles of Leadership Self-Efficacy

As leaders, we are often constrained by low levels of confidence, hidden from others because of credibility concerns and, unaddressed because of poor professional development provision. This self-doubt or what we will refer to in this blog post as low self-efficacy can act as a shackle, depriving us of our freedom to act or to perform to our best ability.

My doctoral research into the topic has resulted in me strongly believing that organisations need to free their leaders from these shackles by building psychologically-safe environments and leveraging the learning from Self-efficacy theory in their leadership development programmes.

Self-efficacy is defined as ‘one’s beliefs in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments’ (Bandura, 1997). Separated from more global constructs such as self-esteem or self-worth by its high levels of specificity, it could be described as ‘task-specific confidence.’

Since the 1970s, Bandura’s theory has been developed and applied across a diverse body of empirical research and a wide array of performance domains. Efficacy beliefs are significant in the study of human functioning as they are thought to predict a person’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and actions (Bandura, 1986). Key aspects of high and low self-efficacy are outlined below.

Individuals with high levels of Self-efficacy tend to:

  • Accept challenges.
  • Demonstrate intrinsic interest and deep engagement with activities.
  • Show resilience during difficult tasks.
  • Recover quickly from setbacks and disappointments.
  • Experience lower levels of stress.

Individuals with low levels of Self-efficacy tend to:

  • Have low aspirations.
  • Avoid challenging tasks.
  • Lessen their efforts during difficulties.
  • Demonstrate weak commitment to goals.
  • Focus on personal failings and negative outcomes.

In terms of developing Self-efficacy, the literature continues to strengthen Bandura’s original suggestion that its biggest levers are experience, vicarious influence, social persuasion and physiological and affective states. James Maddux (1995) added a fifth now widely accepted source in the form of imaginal experience or visualisation.

However, literature directly linking levels of Self-efficacy with leadership performance is rare. Yet if we look back at the idea of ‘task-specific confidence’ and view the word confidence as a related, albeit more colloquial term then the research starts to open up. Major reviews of leadership literature cite confidence, and specifically self-confidence, as an essential element of effective leadership (Bass, 1990; Northhouse, 2001; Yukl & Van Fleet, 1992). Locke (1991) even goes so far as to suggest that self-confidence is a necessary and undisputed trait for successful leadership. Maurer (2001) found that effective leaders share many of the characteristics of efficacious people in that they are motivated, persistent, goal-directed, and resilient, further strengthening the link between effective leadership and self-efficacy.

My own doctoral research explored Self-efficacy within educational leadership across 138 middle and senior leaders within a Multi-Academy Trust of 20 schools in the South West of England. The hope was that a greater understanding of what Self-efficacy levels were and how they had been developed would lead to improvements in the design and delivery of my own organisation’s leadership development programmes. The anticipated result was that leaders would be confident by design rather than chance. A mixed-methods case study approach was used, and the main findings were:

  • Self-efficacy levels increased positively with seniority, time in leadership and, time in role.
  • Self-efficacy levels were not statistically correlated with school type (primary, secondary).
  • Leaders felt a social desirability bias to rate their confidence highly to avoid embarrassment.
  • Leaders felt particularly low levels of Self-efficacy at the start of a new role or responsibility.
  • Gender, personality and domain knowledge internally affected leader’s Self-efficacy.
  • Line managers, organisational structure and change externally affected Self-efficacy levels.
  • The presence of a coach or mentor was the greatest mechanism for developing Self-efficacy.

The findings from my study have since contributed to the re-design of our leadership development programme and the creation of an organisation-wide coaching and mentoring framework.

The call to action for organisations to increase their understanding of leadership self-efficacy and the role it plays may seem like common sense but sadly we are far from it being common practice. For the shackles of Self-efficacy to be removed we need to:

  • Make it safe for leaders to voice low confidence.
  • Acknowledge that the induction period presents a particular Self-efficacy lull.
  • Recognise the role that superiors play in the creation and destruction of Self-efficacy.
  • Utilise role-play and rehearsal within coaching and mentoring prior to performance.
  • Provide opportunities to observe effective leadership practice through shadowing.
  • Provide formal and informal mentoring and coaching.

In conclusion, what seems like a common link between confidence and leadership performance is in fact a more complex concept that requires organisations to provide psychologically safe work environments where it can be explored and opportunities such as coaching, mentoring and training in order to develop it. If this can be achieved then the shackles of self-doubt that hold many leaders back from their best performance can be unlocked.


Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: the exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Bass, B.M. (1990). Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications, 3rd ed. New York, NY: Free Press.

Locke, E.A. (1991). The essence of leadership: The four keys to leading successfully. New York: Lexington Books.

Maddux, J.E. (1995) Self-efficacy, adaptation, and adjustment: Theory, research, and application. New York: Plenum Press.

Northouse, P.G. (2001). Leadership. 2nd ed., Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Maurer, T.J. (2001). Career-relevant learning and development, worker age, and beliefs about self-efficacy for development. Journal of Management: 27:123-140.

Yukl, G., & Van Fleet, D. D. (1992). Theory and research on leadership in organizations. In M. D. Dunnette & L. M. Hough (Eds.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology (pp. 147-197). Palo Alto, CA, US: Consulting Psychologists Press.