Lessons From Peter Drucker

Want to be a better leader? Develop your self-confidence

William Cohen, Ph.D.
Posted: 03/04/2014

No one starts right out in life accomplishing what we might think of as "big things". We start as an infant and accomplish what we now consider to be small things like learning to walk, talk, read, write, and reason.

But are these really small things?

Think back. At the time you first learned to do any of these things you probably didn’t think it was so small. The truth is, even with these "small things" we started out by doing still smaller things first and slowly increasing the difficulty until we could accomplish the overall task.

Today, there is no longer any doubt that when you stand, put forth one leg and then another, you are going to walk. As you read this, unless you are just learning English, there is little doubt but that you will understand what you have read. You automatically expect these positive results.

Nobody starts out with greatness

With the more complex and challenging tasks and projects of adults, leaders fail to expect to succeed for only one of two reasons. Either they have been unsuccessful at similar tasks or projects in the past, or they have never tried to accomplish them in the first place. And by the way, those who have never tried usually haven’t tried because they feel they will fail if they did.

A Baby Must Learn to Crawl Before It Can Walk

How many infants have you heard of that simply took their bottles out of their mouths, placed them on a nearby table, hopped out of their cribs and begin to walk?

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard of any.

The correct sequence is that the baby begins to crawl, gains self-confidence enough to stand up, gains a little more self-confidence and takes a step. Usually the first step ends in disaster and the baby falls. But, the baby knows that at least it made a start, and so it eagerly tries again not long afterwards. Usually the parents are so elated about the attempt that they are full of praise and cheer the attempt, even though a detractor might say that the baby "did a terrible job" and didn’t even manage to take even a single step successfully.

This points out an interesting fact about why people in general - and many leaders - lack self-confidence later on in life. A baby usually has someone cheering him or her on. But even if not, who’s to say that that first step when he fell was a terrible attempt or an excellent one? The problem is, as we get older, there are others that discourage us either with or without malice. Many of these observers are very judgmental and are almost certain to let us know when they think that we did a poor job.

A child wants to help its mother and in the attempt drops a dinner plate and breaks it. Maybe mother is nervous and irritable. So, she yells at the child who was only trying to help. Is the child as ready to attempt to help with the dishes, or other similar tasks, in the future? Usually unless the mother reassures the child and attempts to cancel her previous response, probably not. Worse, what if the mother was nervous and so in addition to yelling she, berates the child as being clumsy. If the child accepts that as the truth, it may have serious consequences later.

As the child gets older and out of the house, things can become worse for his or her self-confidence. Children are very critical of failure. Some teachers can be even worse. Olympic Decathlon Champion Bruce Jenner says that as a child he was deathly afraid of being called on in school to read. His teachers criticized him, and the more he was criticized, the lower self-confidence he had and the poorer his self-image. And of course, the worse he did.

He was attracted to sports because one day a teacher told him and others to run between two points in the school yard. He was the fastest! For the first time, others were complimenting him. "I didn’t know you could run that fast." "Boy are you good at running!" "I bet you could outrun anyone." Jenner’s self-confidence soared, and of course it spilled into other areas. In his opinion, this was his first step toward winning an Olympic Gold Medal in the 1976 Olympics.

Start with Small Successes and Work Up

Bruce Jenner was fortunate. What if no teacher had ever asked him to run? Would he have ever developed the self-confidence to compete in sports and go on to win a gold medal in the Olympics?

Perhaps so, perhaps, not. We’ll never know for sure.

But scientists have discovered that confidence generated in one area spills over into other area. We can use the same concept to build self-confidence in any area of life that we choose. All we need to do is select a relatively easy goal to accomplish to begin, and then go ahead and accomplish it.

Every time you complete a task or goal successfully, celebrate and congratulate yourself. Then set a higher goal or a more difficult task and just keep on improving and increasing your confidence.

It’s just like working out with weights or running. You build up the amount of weight slowly or run more swiftly as you develop your strength. Before long, you’ll be doing things that you never thought you could. You will have acquired that self-confidence you need to expect positive results as a leader.

Self-Confidence in One Area Can Carry Over Into Others

The military uses something called a "confidence course" to build self-confidence. It consists of man-made obstacles or events that each participant must traverse successfully. All are designed to be from moderately to severely difficult and challenging, but doable if done right.

One might require climbing down a 100-foot rope suspended from a cliff, for instance. Another might force the participant to jump out to catch a swinging rope suspended over a pool of water.

Do it right, and you catch the rope and safely reach the other side by dropping off before the rope starts swinging back. Do it incorrectly and you end up in the water. There are many others, but you get the general idea. Running such a course is not intended to be competitive with a battlefield adversary. Rather, soldiers acquire confidence which translates into better performance in battle.

Tony Robbins, who has led fire walks all over the country does the same thing. Yes, this is no misprint, I mean walking on a bed of white hot coals for a distance of twelve feet or longer. Robbins calls this seminar "Fear into Power," and makes in quite clear that he isn’t teaching party skills, but rather using the fire walk as a metaphor, "If you could do this which you think is impossible, what else can you do that you also think is impossible." Before you put this down to pure quackery, I should tell you that Robbins has been to Camp David and taught an American president do a fire walk.

Turn Disadvantages into Advantages

If you really want to build your self-confidence, start turning disadvantages into advantages. When you know you can do that, you know you can do anything. Back in the early part of this century, the richest man of his day, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie commissioned a young reporter by the name of Napoleon Hill to research success. Carnegie offered to provide introductions to some of the richest and most famous men in America if Hill would investigate and could the reasons for their success.

It took Hill twenty years, but he accomplished his mission. One of his discoveries was that hidden within every problem, drawback, disadvantage, or obstacle, there was an equally powerful opportunity or advantage. Hill found that successful people looked for these opportunities hidden within the problems and used them.

The man who invented the ice cream cone did so at the Worlds Fair in St. Louis in 1904. This man had several hundred galleons of ice cream the night before the fair opened. However, he had a problem, a big problem. His vendor had run out of paper cups to hold the ice cream. The man had lots of ice cream, but nothing for customers to eat it out of.

His wife came up with the idea of using a waffle iron to cook waffle batter and roll the cooked rectangle into a cone before it could cool. The ice cream cone was such a hit at the fair, that the man sold out. He made a fortune with his new invention as its popularity exploded all over the country. In the words of Mary Kay Ash who built the billion dollar Mary Kay Cosmetics Company, "he turned lemons into lemonade."

All heroic leaders have self-confidence. But no one starts out with self-confidence and you can develop your self-confidence yourself using these methods.

William Cohen, Ph.D.
Posted: 03/04/2014

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