The self-confidence game

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Peter Drucker

I’ve written about self-confidence before. The truth is; I’ve never seen an effective leader who did not have it. And you can see it in all sorts of forms and environments. Self-confidence isn’t just desirable in a leadership position, I would say it’s vital. So how do you nurture your own?

There is an old story told about the Texas Rangers. One of the wild gangs that roamed the old West took over a small Texas town. They shot up the bar, threatened the citizens, and drove the sheriff out of town. In desperation the town's mayor telegraphed the governor, pleading that he send a detachment of Texas Rangers. The Governor promised that a detachment would be on the next day's train.

Self confidence can take you to the unlikliest of places.

The following day the mayor himself met the train on which the Rangers were to arrive. Unbelievably, only one Ranger got off the train.

"Where are the rest of the Rangers," asked the mayor.
"There aren't any more," was the answer.
"How can one Ranger handle the gang?" asked the mayor indignantly.
"Well, there's only one gang ain't there?" replied the Ranger.

This story may not be 100% true, but it is based on fact. Less than 100 Rangers protected the entire State of Texas. And no Ranger felt himself outnumbered, though he might be working alone. The Ranger would look the situation over, and do what had to be done. He would lead posses, motivate and organize disheartened citizens, and guide lawmen. The situation was almost always dangerous. Yet the Ranger routinely led and directed others in life and death situations. From such facts came legends like the story I've told you. Another is a fictional hero that you may have heard of. His creator called him, "The Lone Ranger."

Self-confidence comes from knowing that you will succeed

A WWII Air Force training manual on leadership says," No man can have self-confidence if not convinced in his own mind that he is qualified to perform the job he is assigned." It's a fact. If you know that you can succeed at something, than you will have self-confidence that you can do it. So the problem is how can you know you will succeed before you actually try something?

Fortunately, there is a way. You can have a little success before a big success. And a little success counts just as much as a big success as far as our belief system goes. That means if you can win little victories in being successful at something, your psyches will believe that you can accomplish even greater things in the same area. Moreover, you will project this inward feeling outward and others will begin treating you differently.

During the American Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant, a hero of the Mexican War who had been discharged from the Army for a drinking problem, couldn’t even get a commission at first. Finally, Richard Yates, the Governor of Illinois gave him a commission as a lieutenant colonel at the head of some State militia troops.

On the way to his first battle he was filled with a lack of self-confidence and fear that he wouldn’t be good enough. But then he thought about his opponent who he knew from West Point. "He’s no better than me," he realized. He had no more training or military education, and no more combat experience. Grant won his first battle. He went on to become the commander of all Federal troops as a four-star general and later became President of the United States.

Many leaders are made this way. They acquire their self-confidence by leading successively larger organizations with greater responsibilities. At every step their belief systems grow that they can be successful. This belief leads to the self-confidence necessary to do the job.

Four ways to build your self-confidence and increase your leadership skills

How do heroic leaders acquire the self-belief in success necessary to get the job done? All heroic leaders have used these methods. If you adopt them, you will develop your self-confidence as a leader through numerous smaller successes. Every time you practice them, your belief system in your own success will be strengthened. You will become a powerful leader. Moreover, you will be ready to assume major leadership responsibilities because you will have the necessary self-confidence.

1. Take Advantage of the Fact That You Don't Need To Be a Manager
The first way to develop self-confidence while you develop your leadership skills is to become an uncrowned leader. There are hundreds of opportunities for you to become a leader if you want to. I promise you that if you stop to look you will find at least one opportunity, and probably even more, every day. The truth is, people around you are positively crying for you to help them by seizing the opportunity to lead. You don't have to be a manager to be a leader. Being a manager has to do with doing things right. Being a leader has to do with doing the right things. You absolutely do not need to have an official position as a paid manager to be a leader.

2. Be An Unselfish Teacher and A Helper of Others
We succeed in life only to the extent that we help others succeed in their lives. That's true whether you are a Heroic Leader of men or women in combat, in the office or boardroom, or even an author of a book on leadership. If I am successful in helping you to reach your goals in life as a leader, you will make me successful in my goals as an author as well. That's how life works. So to become a successful heroic leader there is something you must do. You must give up some of your time, some of your resources, and some of your self so that others can succeed. In doing so, you will develop the self-confidence and success in uncrowned leader jobs without which you cannot move on to bigger leadership jobs in the future.

3. Why You Should Develop Your Expertise . . . In Something
Research has demonstrated conclusively that there is an important source of power that will automatically attract others to you and make you their uncrowned leader. That source of power is expertise. What is expertise? Expertise is in-depth knowledge or skills on a particular subject. Expertise can be on any subject. It can be about marketing, flying, warfare, management, stock management, record keeping, investments, buying a car, getting a loan, bowling, or baseball. Expertise can also be on what to eat, how to jog, or even the best way to mow your lawn. Expertise can be about anything human beings do. You must simply decide what to become an expert in and put in the time to develop your skills. This is what I find interesting about acquiring expertise. Not only is it interesting, it seems to be a big secret because not too many people seem to know it. You can become an expert in just about anything in five years or less. There is only one requirement. You must put forth the effort.

4. The Amazing Power of Positive Mental Imagery
One of the most important exercises you can do to develop your self-confidence as a leader is practice positive mental imagery. Positive images can significantly improve your self-confidence. One of the leading researchers in the area of imagery is Dr. Charles Garfield. Dr. Garfield is a unique individual. He has not one, but two doctorates: in mathematics and psychology. I first read of Dr. Garfield's work in the pages of the Wall Street Journal in 1981. The article spoke about Dr. Garfield's research regarding what he called a kind of "mental rehearsal." He is also an amateur weightlifter. Garfield found that more effective executives frequently practiced positive mental rehearsal. Less effective executives did not. In his book, Peak Performers, Garfield described how Soviet bloc performance experts in Milan, Italy confirmed his theories and enabled him to lift more weight in a bench press exercise than he ever thought possible.

In summary here are your four action steps to build leadership self-confidence:

  1. Become an uncrowned leader by seeking out and volunteering to be a leader whenever you can.
  2. Be an unselfish teacher and helper of others. Others will come to you for leadership.
  3. Develop your expertise. Expertise is a source of leadership power.
  4. Use positive mental imagery. Simulations in the mind are rehearsals for success. They are interpreted by the mind as real experiences. So they will boost your leadership self-confidence just like the actual experience.


Concepts adapted from William A. Cohen, Heroic Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2010).