When Self-Confidence Turns Into a Liability

Self-confidence is defined by Northouse (2010) as one’s ability to be convinced about his or her competencies and skills, including a sense of self-esteem and self-assurance. Everybody would agree that self-confidence is an important trait for anyone in a leadership position. The trick is to have the right amount of self-confidence. Depending on the leader and the situation, self-confidence can range from very low to very high. A leader who is at either side of the spectrum is a liability for their organizations.

When a leader is at the low end of the spectrum, their self-confidence can come from either low self-esteem or lack of experience at the job. If it comes from a lack of experience, the leader needs only to acknowledge this and accept wise counsel from the right people. However, when low self-confidence comes from low self-esteem, the leader is in dangerous water. Low self-esteem will cause a leader to demonstrate either a lack of confidence or overconfidence. In either case, the leader becomes a liability.

Leaders with low self-esteem:

  • Unable to make the right decisions for the organization.
  • Preoccupied with being “found out” by others. They feel threatened by anyone who seems to know more than them, therefore, failing to be open to others ideas and recommendations.
  • Indecisive, causing delays throughout the organization. They either take too much time to make a decision or too frequently change their mind.
  • Unable to take ownership of mistakes.
  • Try to please everyone.
  • Not focused on their strengths and how they can contribute to the organization, resulting in personal ineffectiveness.

In one example, a leader without much confidence in his capabilities was constantly worried about being outperformed by subordinates. Therefore, every time a subordinate presented an idea in which the leader felt threatened, he would produce excuses or reasons why that particular member should not continue on with the idea. This happened repeatedly, and the impact was that the organization was doomed to mediocrity. Employees became less engaged and stopped producing ideas, and productivity decreased. Eventually, the leader’s department became dispensable and was cut when the company reorganized.

At the high end of the spectrum, overconfident leaders are viewed as arrogant or hubristic.

Leaders with hubris:

  • Think so highly of themselves that they become narrow-minded. They don’t look at the big picture, but become consumed with their own biases, and do not make the right decisions for the organization.
  • Create a “yes-man” culture. People around this type of leader only say what they think the leader wants to hear, not what needs to be said.
  • Inhibit creativity and initiative because of the lack of openness to new ideas that did not originate with him or her.
  • Cannot perform at their best since they think they do not need to improve. The reality is that no matter where you are in your career, in order to stay the best, you have to constantly work on improving your technical and leadership skills.

Consider one over-confident vice president of a Fortune 500 company who decided he could sell a new product to a previous customer by overselling. He believed that his employees would just have to keep up with him. After all, he became a vice president by overselling himself for years. He did not consult with any experts on this decision and never understood the dimensions of a reasonable time frame or the feasibility to create the product he was promising the client. He did win the contract, but failed miserably at delivery of the product and lost a customer that had done business with the organization for years. Additionally, top talent in the company suffered from burnout, working too many hours to create the impossible. Leaders must be careful not to stretch their employees to such an extreme that they have been set up to fail.

Regardless of which end of the spectrum you fall as a leader, you are a liability to your organization. Through the behaviors mentioned above, leaders at either end of the spectrum contribute to decreased productivity and employee engagement. After time, this results in failed projects, loss of customers and, most importantly, loss of top talent in the organization. Claiming that these types of leaders cost their organizations millions of dollars is no exaggeration. So, here are some tips that can help you avoid being a liability to your company.

  • Accept that you are not perfect. Surround yourself with people who compliment you, individuals whose strengths are in the areas you are weak on.
  • Focus on your strengths! Maximize them while working on the areas you need to improve for the job you are in and the one you aspire to be. Every job needs different skills.
  • Surround yourself with people who are not afraid to give you honest feedback.
  • Be an open-minded leader. Listen to what those around you have to say, even when their ideas are better than yours.
  • Take calculated risks.
  • Understand that failure is part of success. If you fail, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, learn from it and move on.
  • Continue to grease your wheels, otherwise you will get rusty. Personal and professional development should never stop!


Northouse, P.G. (2010). Leadership Theory and Practice. California: Sage Publications.

Brittney Herbert

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