Self-Confidence and Success


September 9, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

One common characteristic of the great leaders I meet is self-confidence, which of course makes sense. Leaders have to inspire confidence in others. It would be difficult for others to believe in us if we don’t even believe in ourselves.

Great leaders have to take risks. While getting to “acceptable” may not involve risk, getting to “one of a kind” does. Self-confidence gives great leaders the courage they need to take their companies – and themselves – to a new level of success.

A huge part of self-confidence comes from our previous success. Successful people tell themselves, “I have succeeded in the past. Therefore, I know I can succeed in the future.” That’s the good news about successful people’s belief in their previous success. The bad news is that it makes it hard for them to hear negative feedback.

Your Highlight Reel

You may not think that this applies to you, because surely someone who can’t hear negative feedback is suffering from an ego run amok. But look closely at yourself. How do you have the confidence to wake up in the morning and charge into work, filled with optimism and eagerness to compete? It’s not because you are reminding yourself of the screw-ups you have created and the failures you have endured. On the contrary, it’s because you edit out failures and choose to run the highlight reel of your successes.

If you’re like the successful people I know, you’re focused on the positives, calling up mental images when you were the star, when you dazzled everyone and came out on top. It might be those five minutes in the executive meeting when you had the floor and nailed the argument you wanted to make. (Who wouldn’t run that highlight reel in their head as if it were the Sports Center Play of the Day?) It might be your skillfully crafted memo that the CEO praised and routed to everyone in the company. (Who wouldn’t want to reread that memo in a spare moment?) When our actions lead to a happy ending and make us look good, we love to replay it for ourselves.

My partner, Mark Reiter, discussed this with a baseball star. Every hitter has certain pitchers against whom he historically hits better than he does against others. The star told Mark, “When I face a pitcher whom I’ve hit well in the past, I always go up to the plate thinking I ‘own’ this guy. That gives me confidence.”

“What about pitchers you don’t hit well?” Mark asked. “How do you deal with a pitcher who ‘owns’ you?”

“Same thing,” he said. “I go up to the plate thinking I can hit this guy. I have done it before with pitchers a lot better than he is.”

This hitter figured out a way to use his past success and apply it to a situation that wasn’t a total fit – using his prowess against certain pitchers to give him confidence when facing all pitchers. Successful people don’t drink from a glass that is half empty.

How Much You Contribute

When achievement is the result of a team effort – not just individual performance – we tend to overestimate our contribution to the final victory. I once asked three business partners to estimate their individual contribution to the partnership’s profits. Not surprisingly, the sum of their answers amounted to more than 150% of the actual profit. Each of the three partners thought she was contributing more than half.

This overestimation of our past success is true in almost any workplace. If you ask your colleagues (in a confidential survey) to estimate their percentage contribution to your enterprise, the total will always exceed 100%. There is nothing wrong with this. (If the total adds up to less than 100%, you probably need new colleagues.)

This “I have succeeded” belief, positive as it is in most cases, can become a major obstacle when behavioral change is needed.

Delusions of Superiority

Successful people consistently overrate themselves relative to their peers. I have asked more than 80,000 participants in my training programs to rate themselves in terms of their performance relative to their professional peers. We found that 80% to 85% rank themselves in the top 20% of their peer group, and about 70% rank themselves in the top 10%. The numbers get even more ridiculous among professionals with higher perceived social status, such as physicians, pilots, and investment bankers.

(M.D.s may be the most delusional. I once told a group of doctors that my extensive research had conclusively proven that half of all M.D.s had graduated in the bottom half of their medical school class. Two of the doctors insisted that this was impossible.)

Please remember this as you progress in the corporate world. The higher up we go – the more successful we become – the harder it may be for us to hear negative feedback. I ask my CEO clients to complete a simple exercise. Complete this sentence, “I am success because of ___,” Then complete this sentence, “I am a success in spite of ___.”

I have never met anyone who was so wonderful that he or she had nothing on the “in spite of” list. (If I did meet such a person, I would suggest that he or she work on “humility.”) My readers are generally successful people. Make your own two lists: figure out your “in spite of” – and get to work.