Illusion, Delusion, and Leaders

Jun 15, 2020

Times of change call for leaders.

Our current Covid 19 crisis is but the latest such time, for the lockdown of economies has created an anticipation of a ‘new world’ where for many businesses the way things were done just a few weeks ago will now be much changed.

Many of us will have been here before having lived through previous economic crises with optimism that things will be different only for hope to be dashed by leaders who have carried on as before so failing to understand and grasp the opportunities that a crisis creates.

Confidence is a major contributor to performance in all roles in life and it is widely acknowledged that leaders should be seen by others as competent and capable.[2]

For many leaders the drive to meet these expectations can create overconfidence – an illusion – that can be detrimental to both leader and follower effectiveness that is based in either a failure of the leader to see deficiencies in themselves or by their having high expectations of positive outcomes[3].

Behind both are beliefs, for instead of being aware of shortcomings many leaders , in common with many other people in life, tend to believe themselves as smarter[4], more competent[5], and more socially skilled[6]; beliefs that are too often delusional in nature and thus false.

The key feature of a delusion is the degree to which the individual is convinced that the belief is true regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

Further research shows, people are inclined to overvalue themselves[7], lack self-awareness[8] , and hold opinions about their abilities based less on how they perform – the evidence – and more on the general beliefs they have about themselves and their underlying skills.[9] Psychologists have dubbed such thinking ‘the better than average effect’.

Most people rate their abilities as ‘better than average’ even though it is statistically impossible for most people to have ‘better than average’ median abilities.

Overestimating one’s abilities is often referred to as ‘illusory superiority’ – a cognitive bias through which an individual overestimates their own qualities and abilities in relation to the same qualities and abilities of other people.

Cognitive bias relates to an individual’s construction of reality, as opposed to real or objective reality, that can lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgement, and illogical interpretation and behaviour.

Biases are pervasive and we all develop cognitive biases that influence our judgement and decision-making and can be major issue for leaders, the organisations and the people they lead. The failure of Carillion Plc, the multi-national Facilities Management and Construction Company that went into liquidation in January 2018 being a fine example of ‘illusory superiority’.

The directors of Carillion in common with most humans were notoriously poor judges of their capabilities. Unfortunately, when low self-aware individuals come together in a team research reveals that the team substantially suffers making worse decisions, engages in less coordination, and shows less conflict management than more self-aware teams. Significantly the most damaging situation occurs when teams are comprised of people who have over-rated their capabilities[10] for this impacts financial performance[11] with such self-promoters being six times more likely to derail.[12]

Throw change into the mix and now our leaders in the ‘new world’ have to deal with the impact of accelerating personal skill depreciation that further exposes their already limited leadership capabilities. These individuals who are leaders in name only:

  • Fail to accept the world has changed;
  • Are connected to their own world;
  • Continue to believe they have the answers;
  • Lack vision;
  • Are poor communicators;
  • Make poor decisions;
  • Fail to listen to or accept new ideas and challenge;
  • Possess self-knowledge and behavioural ‘blindspots’;
  • Have stopped learning; and
  • Fundamentally are self-centred.  

As the Chinese Confucius (551-479 BC) points out: ‘Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance’.

Our mission is to facilitate regular ‘conversations that matter’ to help leaders learn and maintain their skills but we also provide through our partners online 1:1 coaching through which leaders can gain real insight and support in developing their leadership capabilities for the ‘new world’.


For further information about coaching – please download our brochure.


[1] Kahneman, Daniel (2011) ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY

[2] Mumford, M.D. and Shipman, A.S. (2011) When confidence is detrimental: Influence or overconfidence on leadership effectiveness’ The Leadership Quarterly Vol 22, Issue 4, August 2011 pp 649-665

[3] ibid

[4] Shoo, L.A., et al (2013) ‘Insight in Cognition: Self-awareness of Performance across cognitive domains’ Applied Neuropsychology: Adult, 20.2 pp 95-102

[5] Dunning, D. and Kruger, J. (1999) ‘Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognising one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77.6 pp 1121-1134

[6] Mabe, P.A. and West, S.G. (1982) ‘Validity of self-evaluation of ability: A review and meta-analysis’ Journal of Applied Psychology 67.3 pp 180-196

[7] Sala, F. (2003) ‘Executive blind spots: Discrepancies between self and other ratings’ Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 55.4 pp 222-229

[8] Dierdorff, E.C. and Rubin, R.S. (2015) ‘Research: We’re not very self-aware, especially at Work’ Harvard Business Review, 12th March, 2015

[9] Dunning, D., Ehrlinger, J., Johnson, K., and Kruger, J. (2003) ‘Why people fail to recognise their own incompetence’ Current Directions in Psychological Science 12.3 pp 83-87

[10] Dierdorff, E.C, and Rubin, R.S. (2015)

[11] Korn Ferry Institute (2015) ‘Study shows link between self-awareness nd company performance’ Korn Ferry Institute, 15th June, 2015.

[12] PDI Ninth House and University of Minnesota (2012) ‘You’re not all that: Self-promoters six times more likely to derail’ 17th April, 2012

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