Self Efficacy Education in Military Leaders

Integration of self efficacy education in development and training of South African military leaders.


Twenty first century military leaders across the world face unusual challenges as organizations put in great effort to adapt to the ever accelerating rates of change internally and to the external environment within which they operate. Such rapid evolution in modern challenges does not only require equally evolved and revolutionary knowledge, skills and abilities of leaders, but more importantly it requires the self-conceptualizations of their leadership capabilities and psychological resources to meet the ever increasing demands of their functions.

Given such complex challenges, it would be hard to imagine anyone following or being positively influenced by a leader who does not welcome or accept such challenges. Yet, there is not much being done in developing and educating current and future leaders within the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) about such leadership efficacy. Leadership efficacy is a specific form of efficacy associated with the level of confidence in the knowledge, skills, and abilities associated with leading others. It can thus be clearly differentiated from confidence in the knowledge, skills, and abilities one holds in relation to their function in the organisation. In this essay, it is argued that self efficacy education is paramount in training and development of modern and future leaders as the current conditions require leaders to continually rise to the occasion so as to meet complex challenges as well as have the necessary social and psychological aptitude to positively influence their followers and the organization’s culture, climate, and performance. In order to be able to mobilize groups toward collective performance, leaders need the capability to exercise high levels of personal agency and create similar levels of agency in those individuals they are leading by proxy[1]. For the purpose of this essay, agency refers to acts done intentionally.

Bandura[2] also states that central to leadership and its development, efficacy is the most pervasive among the mechanisms of agency and provides a foundation for all other facets of agency to operate. Efficacy’s relevant and comprehensive nature in meeting today’s leadership challenges is captured by Lester et al in a statement that efficacy beliefs affect whether an individual will think in a self-enhancing or self-debilitating way, how well they motivate themselves and persevere in the face of difficulties, the quality of their well-being and their vulnerability to stress and depression, and the choices they make at important decision points[3].

There is a differentiation that can be made between leading behaviours of individual leaders and the leadership effects, which the essay explains as the resultant positive influences displayed in a group which the leader is a part of. The essay suggest that there is potentially great value in building a more comprehensive understanding of the contribution of leader efficacy in building collective leadership efficacy within a group. By pursuing this linkage, the essay intends to connect the literature on leader efficacy with the larger body of research on organizational behaviour to facilitate the discussion on the collective efficacy formed through the interactions between leaders and subordinates. Beyond this the essay will motivate that the strategy for developing South African military leadership should consider leader’s efficacies for taking on the challenges of development and performance. Thus the motivation for integration of self efficacy education in development and training of military leaders and subsequent followers.

Why self efficacy education in leadership development

Self-efficacy has been the most widely studied form of efficacy and has received considerable attention in the fields of cognitive and social psychology through extensive theory building and research. Bandura2 defines self-efficacy as beliefs in one’s abilities to mobilize the motivation, cognitive resources, and courses of action needed to meet situational demands. The believe that one can be the master of one’s own destiny, whether as an individual or as an organisation is essential for future leaders in or out of the military environment. Lacking a sense of self efficacy means that people consider themselves subject to anything but their own ability to master the situation. They blame the elements, the environment, fate, foreigners, providence, history, economics or even God. The culture of dependency that has developed out of this is also a culture of intellectual poverty and lack of self esteem which leads people to seek and expect handouts, direct self explanatory orders and instruction from higher authority at every situation or task.

The leader who brings a sense of efficacy to a situation is the one who restores people to a belief that they themselves control their own destiny and takes responsibility for their actions. Borne along by this conviction, the leader imparts it in words and deeds, inspiring followers to work together to achieve a new transformed reality. The leader draws inspiration from the meditation on the plight of the followers; they respond by endorsing and confirming the essential rightness of the mission, it is what subordinates desire the most. The finest exemplars of military leadership efficacy can be seen in General Collin Powell, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Major General Archer Lejeune to name a but few.

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Efficacy transforms a situation and this means more than effectiveness. Efficacy changes the whole picture to the point of even breaking the frame. To be effective is to be the cause of the result, but this is within given circumstances, it is not transformative. Lester et al3 proposed that positive psychological states such as efficacy directly promote effective leader engagement, flexibility and adaptability across the varying challenges characterizing complex organizational contexts. This is because higher levels of self efficacy provide the internal guidance and drive to create the agency needed to pursue challenging tasks and opportunities successfully. To this end McCormic et al[4]. concluded that leader self-efficacy, may be one of the most active ingredients in successful leadership, and team performance, and that it clearly contributes to leadership effectiveness.

Development of Self-efficacy in leaders

How leader efficacy influences a leader may differ depending on whether the efficacy is conceived in the preparatory context during learning and training situations or job performance situations. In his social cognitive theory, Bandura2 suggested that the optimal strength of self efficacy differs between the learning of a skill, which he called preparatory efficacy, and performing in the situations for which development is targeted, or job performance efficacy. Bandura further argued that though there is a positive linear relationship between performance efficacy and performance, the relationship between preparatory efficacy and learning is more complex.

Machida and Schaulbroeck[5] explains that preparatory efficacy is different from an individual’s beliefs about their general ability to learn, which is termed learning efficacy, the efficacy construct in focus here is one’s efficacy for executing and completing a task during preparatory situations. Bandura2 explains that when individuals are highly efficacious in completing tasks and demonstrating skills in the preparatory or learning process, they often have little incentive to invest further effort into learning the skill. Though leaders’ efficacy about leading others during the actual execution of leadership roles might need to be higher for peak performance, leaders’ efficacy in leading others during leader development and preparatory phase might need to be lower so as to facilitate greater motivation to persist in learning and practicing the skills.

The studies conducted by Machida and Schaulbroeck5 claim that there is a negative relationship between self-efficacy and learning. It seems likely that people who are too confident in their leadership abilities will not seek to invest their time and energy in developing their leadership ability as would individuals who have a more realistic sense of the scope of leadership activities. Machida and Schaulbroeck5 further proposed that the concept of efficacy performance spirals and has self-correcting cycles. According to these authors, an efficacy-performance spiral is a phenomenon in which increases or decreases in one variable of performance causes a similar change in the other variable of self efficacy which ultimately leads to a self-reinforcing trend in performance. Thus by amplifying upward efficacy performance spirals, individuals become complacent as they see their performance and their confidence improve despite lack of exploring alternative task strategies or increasing other preparatory activity such as by experimenting with new behaviours. This perspective supports Bandura’s argument that there are advantages to possessing lower level of self-efficacy in the context of completing a task during preparation and learning or development of skills2.

Bandura argued that self-efficacy is a fluctuating property that changes constantly; however, he has not discussed what would be the ideal or preferred patterns of change in self-efficacy to maximize learning in the preparatory phases, such as leader development activities. Machida and Schaulbroeck5 proposed the concept of efficacy spirals in relation to organizational performance and collective efficacy. For optimal learning, leaders may need to maintain a self-correcting cycle by seeking to adjust their self-efficacy, increasing it or decreasing it in ways toward the objective of motivating investments in preparation. Another implication of efficacy performance spirals is that when leaders are learning to lead, repeated and uninterrupted failure, which will tend to decrease self-efficacy and encourage downward efficacy spirals, should be avoided. Such failure patterns are demoralizing and can even lead to a cycle of learned helplessness wherein the individuals come to believe that they have no control over performance improvement.

For developmental tasks to be sufficiently challenging for development to occur, a high probability of failure must be inherent, however, to avoid situation whereby learners engage themselves in downward efficacy spirals, a self-correcting cycle must be encouraged by exposing the learners to possibly less difficult tasks and reminded of their developmental progress. During the development activities, leader’s baseline self efficacy must ideally be set at a moderate level. As leaders encounter developmental challenges, their self-efficacy can and should fluctuate from this baseline self-efficacy level in the self-correcting cycle of efficacy change. Based on Bandura’s arguments concerning preparatory self-efficacy, it is believed that maintaining the motivation for learning during the process of leader development requires that one’s baseline leader self-efficacy is not too low or too high. Thus, when individuals are developing their skills as leaders, it is critical that they are aided in maintaining a moderate level of self-efficacy to engage the self-correcting cycle of efficacy changes most effectively.

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Development of Self-efficacy in South African military leaders

Having discussed the distinction between preparatory and performance efficacy, it is important to keep in mind that both preparatory and performance leader efficacy must be viewed in reference to the specific task of leading others in the defence organization. According to Bandura2 learning self-efficacy is not self-efficacy about performing a task during learning nor is it about how the individuals perceive his or her abilities in comparison to their peers rather, it refers to confidence about one’s ability to learn a skill and accomplish a task.

In his review of numerous studies, Bandura2 stated that the most potent antecedent to developing self-efficacy is mastery experiences based on past performance accomplishments. However, Bandura2 also made clear that prior success alone does not raise self efficacy. Development is influenced by how the individual interprets the success and the context that performance occurred in. This suggests mentoring that helps leaders make meaning of their prior leadership experiences is important in influencing development. Lester et al3 suggested that leader’s identity construction occurs through social interaction, through claiming and granting of leadership. Individuals claim leadership through stepping up and attempting to influence others. Others then grant leadership through affirming and supporting that leader’s attempts. Through this reciprocal process, individuals begin to see themselves as capable leaders, reinforcing a leader identity.

It is therefore suggested that mentorship be incorporated into leadership training to foster leader’s identity construction and grant affirming support. As experienced role models, mentors can be powerful sources to provide such external endorsement. The primary role of mentors must be to provide psycho-social support to learners, helping them to diagnose their prior actions, cast those actions in a positive light, and to serve as a source of validation for the learners. Machida and Schaubroek5 proposed that strong manifestation of a leader’s identity ultimately requires endorsement from others, including one’s mentor, peers, or followers. Furthermore, as mentors increase learners’ sense of competence, self-esteem, and efficacy, it can be expected that a spiral effect would occur as noted earlier. Specifically, it is expected that the learners would feel more encouraged and safe to explore their leadership than those without a mentor, and thus, increase attempts to claim leadership in their groups, thereby increasing leadership claim episodes.

Mentorship relationships are expected to be the most effective method as role modelling exhibited by the mentor to the learners will influence development of leader efficacy beliefs by the learners. Mentors will primarily be expected to act as role models who will walk learners through prior or future leadership behaviour and performance, helping them to cognitively replicate and learn aspects of successful performance. Selected mentors should be attractive role models that serve as the prototype upon which learners may identify and base their future development. The mentor must be a role model to the learner such that respective learners begin to believe that they too can develop toward and achieve performance levels similar to their mentor and role model..

According to Bandura1 leader efficacy can also be developed through modelling, whereby learners study and observe competent and relevant role models successfully performing similar tasks, or cognitively model leadership experiences through study and envisioning successful performance by past leaders. The impact that modelling and in-depth observations hold is influenced by the attractiveness of the role model to the learners, the level of similarity between the observed model and the learners characteristics relevant to the task, and how similar the observed tasks are to those tasks the learners may be expected to perform.

Bandura1 also notes that social persuasion ,which constitutes a primary role inherent in mentoring is another way of developing self efficacy. In congruence to Bandura, Lester et al3 explains that even when feedback is negative like discussing an incident of poor performance, mentors can provide feedback in a positive manner, highlighting what was learned and how that feedback can then be used to enhance future performance. What is critical in this factor is that mentors must instil in the individual learners the importance of growing and developing from all sorts of feedback, which is expected to influence thelearner’s efficacy regarding his or her leadership. This approach is also in line with evidence provided by Lester et al3, showing how individualized consideration associated with transformational leadership positively relates to leader development and performance.

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Another process of developing self-efficacy is according to Bandura1, psychological, physiological, and emotional arousal. In this instance, mentors would be required to serve in the role of inspiring learners to motivate their development. Such stimulation can, according to Machida and Schaubroeck5 be generated through inspirational motivation or creating an idealized vision for the learners as well as through sources of emotional infection, whereby mentor’s enthusiasm is transferred to learners and stimulates them to advance their development of leader efficacy. Organized mentorship programs are known to be effective in developing various positive outcomes in learners, the essay suggest that mentorship programs targeting the primary sources of efficacy identified by Bandura as discussed above would be particularly effective in raising learners leader efficacy and performance. It is further suggested that these discussed sources of efficacy be made to be innate in the role of any effective mentor and mentoring relationship.

It is clear by now that this essay proposes that mentoring will increase learners leader efficacy more so than the traditional group based training for leadership development. Based on the research and theory reviewed above, it is suggested that by developing a more individualized  training relationship between the mentor and learners, the promotion of positive trajectories of leader development in the SANDF will be improved. A mentoring program will have a more positive impact on leader efficacy development and performance enhancement than the generalized, ready-made leader training interventions being practiced in the SANDF today because of the degree that the mentors will connect to their individual learner’s needs, abilities and aspirations.

An individualized focus will help target learner’s specific needs and capabilities, enhancing efficacy development. It seems reasonable to expect that one on one mentoring, on average, will provide more consistent opportunities for the mentor to employ the four methods identified by Bandura1 for developing self-efficacy and to adjust the leader development intervention to the exact needs of the learners, thus enhancing learners efficacy and performance.


The essay described the multifaceted role of self efficacy in leader development. Furthermore the essay visited self efficacy related concepts proposed in the psychological literature, including preparatory self-efficacy, efficacy spirals and performance self-efficacy and has made suggestions about ways in which these concepts can be integrated into the current context of leader development in the SANDF.

Judgments concerning leadership abilities as conveyed by mentors and interpreted by budding leaders as they experience successes and failures are essential for the development of highly effective leaders for the future. It is perhaps a cliché that leaders are constantly required to learn and develop in this rapidly changing world. Coming to grips with this truism however requires a developmental process that comprehends the distinctions between leaders preparatory situations and their performance situations, identifies the personal and contextual factors that influence efficacy beliefs of leaders, and finally integrates a multifaceted perspective of leader efficacy in a way that promotes continuously positive learning trajectories. It is hoped that the essay will encourage training of practices that more effectively balance the needs for SANDF leaders to perform in the short term with the imperative that they learn and are adaptive in the longer term as well as inspire further research in the subject matter.


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

Bandura A. Self efficacy in changing societies. New York: Cambridge University press. (2002)

Lester PB, Hannah ST, Harms PD, Vogelgesang GR and Avio BJ. Mentoring impact on leader efficacy development: A field experiment. Academy of management learning and education, review 10,no3(2011)

Machida M and Schaubroeck J. The role of self efficacy beliefs in leader development. Journal of leadership and organisational studies, review 18, no 459(2011)

McCormic MJ, Tanguma J and Lopez-Forment AS. Extending self efficacy theory to leadership: A review and empirical test. Journal of leadership education, Review 1, no2(2002).

[1] Bandura A. Self efficacy in changing societies. New York: Cambridge University press. (2002)

[2] Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control in McCormic MJ, Tanguma J and Lopez-Forment AS. Extending self efficacy theory to leadership: A review and empirical test. Journal of leadership education, Review 1, no2(2002)

[3] Lester PB, Hannah ST, Harms PD, Vogelgesang GR and Avio BJ. Mentoring impact on leader efficacy development: A field experiment. Academy of management learning and education, review 10,no3(2011)

[4] McCormic MJ, Tanguma J and Lopez-Forment AS. Extending self efficacy theory to leadership: A review and empirical test. Journal of leadership education, Review 1, no2(2002).

[5] Machida M and Schaubroeck J. The role of self efficacy beliefs in leader development. Journal of leadership and organisational studies, review 18, no 459(2011)

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