Confidence: Get Some

Posted on July 9, 2009


When I was in the Army, there was some pressure for every officer to attend Ranger School and either Airborne or Air Assault School. I lacked the physical training skills and knowledge that I have now. I didn’t see how I could get in good enough shape to pass any of those courses, and chose not to go. After I branched into Armor, I picked up the tanker’s attitude toward those schools: I’ll go Airborne when they can drop a tank with a parachute. I’ll go Air Assault when they can sling load a tank under a helicopter. I’ll go Ranger when they can build a rope bridge that will hold a tank.

As time went on, I began to understand the reasons for the pressure. Those schools weren’t about particular skills or badges, they were about facing challenges. Facing challenges gives you confidence. Confidence is a key component of leadership. You can be completely ignorant about a task, and if you project enough confidence, people will follow you. Believe me, I’ve seen enough fresh second lieutenants, straight out of West Point and completely ignorant, but with enough confidence to lead their platoons. Like the rest of us, they learned the job while on the job. I didn’t need to be able to lead a Ranger patrol to be a tank platoon leader, but the confidence gained by overcoming Ranger School challenges would have made me a better leader. As it was, there was a marked difference in my capacity to lead after the First Gulf War. Leading a platoon in combat – regardless of how good or bad I was at it – gave me more confidence.

The last two years, I’ve worked at the Auburn Scoring Center of Pearson Education where we score standardized tests. The first year, I worked the whole season as a performance scorer before I supervised – as a substitute. For a day. This year, I worked as a materials handler for one project and scored another for a week before taking on a supervisor position. The advantage that gave me was that I had experience as well as the confidence carried forward from my military service.

That degree of confidence provided a sharp contrast with my team. Now, that project had two prompts, meaning that the students had two chances to demonstrate their skills. The scorers were divided into two groups. Each group was trained and tested on one prompt, and then went on to score one of them. My team had failed their test on one prompt and then been re-trained on the other. They passed the test on that one and then started scoring. The first week, while I was scoring on the same prompt, they were training, re-testing, and then working without a supervisor. So they started out in the hole, and they knew it. When I stepped in, there was only one place for their confidence to go, and I worked to make that happen faster. I brought my innate confidence to the task, plus my experience as a scorer, plus my knowledge of that particular project.

This past week I attended a training session for a part-time job that promised to put a little extra money in my pockets every few months. Most of the people there were scorers from Pearson, and many were former teachers. The job requires that we handle materials for up to 30 “examinees,” some of whom might have 3 tests and 3 answer sheets. The maximum amount of material was 180 items. Earlier this year, I was part of a team that had to inventory, organize, store, track, re-inventory, package, and ship over 200,000 test booklets and answer sheets. We had no problems, and were cited as setting the example for the company on how to handle that client. So when this part-time job required me to inventory, issue, track, recover, and re-inventory less than 200 items, I was nonplussed to say the least. I had already faced a bigger challenge, so it was no big deal to me. I did not, however, immediately ask for a supervisory role. I want to do the job at least once and gain some experience before leading others through it.

My co-workers, given the same information, freaked out. The concept of having to inventory items they’d never seen before in a limited amount of time was more than they could handle. Because they lacked confidence, they focused on the inventory issue. As the instructor continued, they had to struggle to keep up. That lowered their confidence even more and it became something of a vicious cycle. Meanwhile, the guy sitting next to me – a former serviceman and a Pearson scorer, like myself, but also a former teacher – was completely calm. He took notes, he kept up, and was ready to leave at the end of the session. He and I walked out to our cars together, chatting and laughing, while our co-workers fretted and tried to catch up.

I don’t tell that story to say that I’m better than someone else. I’m not. Anyone can seek out experience. Leaders do. So here’s my advice for today:

  • One source of confidence is experience with a specific job. People who are knowledgeable about subject matter and procedures project confidence, but are not necessarily leaders.
  • Another source of confidence is general experience, from facing challenges. People who have already faced greater challenges project confidence.
  • Confidence is a key indicator of leadership potential.

Thanks for reading. Now go find a new challenge!

Posted in: Army, Leadership, Tanks