Years ago, I ran a leadership program at a small college. During a weekend of a team building exercises, my group of four students – three male students and one young woman – underwent the challenge to cross a make-believe river of acid. We were given some objects that we could use to accomplish the task. The three guys, all extraverts, threw themselves into solving the problem. I stood with the young woman and watched. They never turned to her to ask what she thought.
Five minutes went by. Then, ten minutes.
I called the group together for a short assessment. I asked the young woman what she thought. She offered a simple and obvious suggestion, and within two minutes we were all across the acid river.
We ended the afternoon talking about how our different personalities function in challenging team situations, and why self-confidence can easily be confused with an egotistical belief in ourselves.
Confidence reveals itself in pressurized situations.
Planning is done for a major initiative and now it is time for execution. It is a time for action, where self-doubt and panic can easily derail the process. So, we keep planning, over thinking, looking for the perfect answer, until we are overwhelmed and paralyzed, unable to take action.
We all face these situations as a part of our personal development. How successfully we manage them is one of the ways that confidence is built.
Self-Confidence From Inner Resilience
Jim Collins in his book, Good To Great, writes about his encounter with Admiral James Stockdale. As the highest ranked U.S. military officer imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam war, Stockdale was responsible for getting his men through the experience and home safely.
The prisoner-of-war experience of torture, both mental and physical, is designed to break a soldier’s confidence. Collins learned from Stockdale what he calls The Stockdale Paradox:
Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties. AND at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
The Stockdale Paradox means that confidence is not an emotional hope against hopelessness. It is rather an inner resilience that enables us to face any obstacle with the belief that we can get through it.
Confidence is not bravado and heroic gestures. It is a quiet determination to help ourselves and those with whom we work to succeed in the moments of greatest challenge.
How, then, do we gain this kind of self-confidence that can carry us through any challenging situation?
There is an idea that I have encountered over the years that self-confidence is will-power. People put themselves into all kinds of challenging situations to test their capacities.
They overcome the challenge. They grow in confidence. Yet, what I have found is that it is often done in a highly selective manner. They are not challenging themselves across a spectrum of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual experiences. But just in one area which the person identifies as their special area for development.
In many cases, these areas of challenge lead them to become experts in their field as professional guides, coaches or thought leaders. However, from my experience, there is an incomplete quality to this kind of self-confidence. Take them out of their arena of success, and their self-confidence melts. There is more to the development of self-confidence than the mastery of one important area of our lives.
Self-Confidence From Relationships and Alignment
We gain confidence in our lives through two other ways. Each one supports and completes the experience of challenging ourselves to be our best in a particular area.
The first is in the development of our networks of relationships for mutual support. Here we find confidence is a gift given to us in a shared manner.
For most of us, our first experience of feeling confident has come from someone like a coach, a teacher, a youth leader or parent saying something to us that provides a new perspective on our lives. Their encouragement answers a question that we did not know we even had. And, yet, here we are lifted up by their expression of confidence in us.
As we get older, we still need people who can take us aside and say something like, “Your performance today made all the difference in securing the contract. Thank you.” We find ourselves connecting some initiative we have taken with a new or clear sense of our self-perception. We gain direction and focus because we now know, a little bit better, how we function in social and organizational situations. We need people like this in our lives. And, maybe, more importantly, we need to be this kind of person for other people.
The other aspect of our lives that helps develop confidence is order. By this I mean, the kind of orderliness that comes with the alignment of the Three Dimensions of Leadership of the Circle of Impact.
When we align the three dimensions of ideas, relationships and the structure of our life and work, we remove the gaps of confusion and disconnection. We see our lives as a whole.
From this perspective, life becomes more simple in perception, though may become more complex in execution because we have chosen a direction which demands more of us than ever before. We see an order from things fitting together. Let me share how this has affected me.
This year I turn 65 years of age. I am at a time in life where most of my peers are preparing for or have entered retirement. That is not my story.
At the time that I turned 59, my consulting practice was fading, I was a month away from being fired from the non-profit organization that I led, and my marriage of 30 years had just ended.
As I drove out of the driveway the day I moved out of the house, I heard a voice within me say, “Everything is ending.” The only response I could make to this thought was, “Well, something must be beginning.”
It was the lowest point of my life. There was no real order or direction in my life. My days were filled with meaningful activities, but there was no order to it. After two years, I realized that I need to start my life over. I moved across the country and began a new life and a new business.
The starting point for me was a clear sense of purpose. I was committed to helping people take initiative to make a difference in the world. I just didn’t know how I was going to do that.
Over the next three years, I brought order to my life and work. I wrote a book. Established new networks of mutually supportive relationships. I started a new company and restarted my consulting work with a different focus and approach. My challenges are greater than ever, yet, there is a quiet confidence that carries me through each day.
Empowering the Sources of Self-Confidence
What I have learned is that self-confidence is not believing in ourselves in spite of our doubts. It is creating the conditions which enable us to find the resource of confidence that enable us to take on the challenges that fit with our sense of ambition that we have for our lives.
Therefore, there are three sources that feed our self-confidence:
- Alignment of the Three Dimensions of Leadership
There is our experience of overcoming hardships and obstacles. We learn resiliency and determination from the adversity we experience. These attributes build the strength and confidence needed to reinforce in us that there is nothing we cannot get through. This self-perspective is the insight and assurance we glean from The Stockdale Paradox.
The second source is our relationships with people. If you lack a close network of mutually supportive relationships, then begin by identifying people to whom you can give the gift of confidence. To get confidence, we must give it, as well.
Our lives are both personal and social. To receive, we must give. To give, we must receive. This order to our relationships builds strength for the challenges we face together.
The last source of self-confidence, creating order for our lives, is where the application of the Circle of Impact can benefit us. Align our lives with the three dimensions of leadership, and we’ll find ourselves growing in confidence because we are growing in the impact that we bring the world.