Published by:

  • Leadership – Speeches – Workshops
  • Personal Training – Consulting
  • Leadership – Marketing – Strategy

Vol. 2, No. 8
(626) 791-8973


© William A. Cohen, PhD 2004

This happened around the turn of the century. 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 to right the situation. The Governor agreed that the problem called for the famous Rangers. The Governor promised that a detachment would be on the next day’s train.

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.

“They aren’t any,” 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, or the fictional hero that you may have hear of. His creator called him, “The Lone Ranger.” What did these Rangers possess that allowed them to accomplish such amazing feats with such a small force?

Self-Confidence: The Key to Every Successful Strategy

Know mater how brilliant your strategy, if you don’t have self-confidence in your own abilities to execute it, your brilliant strategy is worthless.

On January 27, 1863, in his search for a commanding general who could defeat Confederate General Robert E. Lee, President Lincoln selected Major General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker Hooker to command of the Army of the Potomac. Hooker had attained his nickname because of his aggressive tactics in battle, and at first it looked as if Lincoln had finally found the right man for the job.

Hooker rehabilitated and organized his previously defeated army and in late April 1863 an exuberant Hooker took his army of 150,000 men, and crossed the upriver fords of the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers to encircle the rear of Lee’s much lesser force of 61,000 men. It looked like it was all over for General Lee, his Army of Northern Virginia, and the Confederacy.

Then amazingly General Hooker suddenly stopped his troops and ordered them into a defensive position. Generals Lee and Jackson watched Hooker’s actions with puzzlement. When they realized what Hooker’s actions symbolized, they developed a bold plan. Putting aside conventional strategy, Lee divided his forces. He sent General Jackson and half of the army around Hookers right flank. Jackson attacked from the rear while Lee held the entire Union army in place from the front.

Almost immediately “Fighting Joe” lost his nerve and ordered a retreat. Not long afterwards, Hooker was relieved of command. When asked what happened at the battle, known to us as the Battle of Chancellorsville, Hooker said: “I lost the battle because I lost confidence in Joe Hooker.” To determine why Hooker lost confidence in himself, we need only examine the string of General Lee’s victories prior to the battle. In Hooker’s mind there was doubt. He was uncertain he would succeed despite his better than two to one advantage in numbers over his adversary. To have confidence, you must know in your mind that you can succeed, whatever your strategy.

How to have Confidence that You Will Succeed Ahead of Time

There is an old saying that nothing succeeds like success. This means that success breeds success, or that successful people tend to become more successful. Another words, if you have been successful in the past, you have a better chance of being successful in the future. That was a major reason for General Lee’s success just as it was for General Hooker’s failure.

But how can you become successful until you are successful? It’s like the chicken and the egg. You can’t have a chicken until you have an egg, but you can’t have an egg until you have a chicken.

Fortunately, 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 psyche will believe that you can accomplish even greater things. Moreover, you will project this inward feeling outward and others will begin treating you differently.

Famed body builder, movie star, and now Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger describes how his confidence began to develop while still in high school as he developed his body: ”Before long people ban looking at me as a special person. Partly this was the result of my own changing attitude about myself. I was growing, getting bigger, gaining confidence. I was given consideration I had never received before . . . “[i]

Many leaders are trained 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. As we have seen, belief that you will be successful leads to the self-confidence necessary to do the job.

You May Not Have The Opportunity To Grow Into A Leader and Strategist.

Unfortunately many individuals may not have the opportunity to be trained by leading successfully larger organizations. Some individuals are so valuable to their bosses that they can’t be spared for jobs where they would lead organizations. Others are overlooked until late in their careers. Than they had better be ready, whether they led smaller organizations earlier or not.

Since we focus on the military this month, let’s look at another military example. By the time he was elected President, General of the Army Dwight David Eisenhower already had a lot of experience in leading men and women in very large organizations. However, as we will see, he lacked some experience that many would consider important before he ever became a general.

In 1940, General Eisenhower was a Lieutenant Colonel. Despite many requests to be sent overseas during World War I, he had spent the entire war training troops in the United States. He never saw combat. Between wars he did valuable work in a variety of staff jobs. He was so valuable in fact, that he despaired of ever being assigned again to command troops.

With the buildup just prior to the war, he was assigned to the General Staff as a Colonel in 1941 reporting to the Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall. Despite his lack of high level command experience, Marshall promoted him successively to Brigadier General and Major General. A year later after completing plans for joint allied operations in Europe, Marshall sent him to London as the Commanding General, European Theater of Operations. The year after that, he commanded the allied invasion of North Africa. He got his third star and became a lieutenant general. Eventually he became the Supreme Commander for the allied invasion of Europe and wore the four stars as a full General. Finally, he was promoted again and with five stars held the rank of General of the Army.

Please note that after years of staff positions, and never having been in combat, Eisenhower eventually commanded and led more than 3 million fighting troops of many different nations. Then later, as President, he went on to lead the most powerful country on earth.

How You Can “Image” Experience that You Never Get in Real Life

There are numerous cases in business and other organizations which duplicate Eisenhower’s experience. That is, individuals without positions where they can build on prior success are thrust into positions of high responsibility. This may be due to the sudden death of a CEO or owner, starting one’s own business, or elevation to a position because there is no one else. There has to be a way to develop yourself in these situations, and there is.

One of the most important exercises you can do to develop your self-confidence as a leader is practice positive mental imagery. The effects of positive (and negative) imagery can best be illustrated if I give you an example you can try for yourself.

Imagine a two by four plank constructed of hard wood, twenty feet long placed on the ground. If I put a 100-dollar bill at one end and told you all you had to do was to walk across the plank to keep it, you would have no trouble. You would stride confidently across and pick up the $100.

What if I raised the height of the plank to fifteen feet off the ground? You would probably still get to the 100 dollars, but it would be a lot more difficult. You would be much more careful where and how you stepped. Your stride would be much slower and more deliberate. What is the difference? The distance hasn’t changed. The width and construction of the board hasn’t changed in any way. Nor has the location of the 100 dollars relative to your starting position. Only the height has changed. And that shouldn’t really make any difference. Or should it?

Now let’s raise the height of that plank to three hundred feet between two skyscrapers. Are you still ready to go for the $100? Or would you insist on at least a thousand dollars or more to walk across the twenty-foot plank? Even than you might decide not to try it. If you did, I bet you would be mighty careful. Yet nothing has changed except the height. The plank, distance, width, and location of the money haven’t changed a whit.

The real difference, of course, is the difference in mental image that the difference in height creates. When the plank is on the floor, our mental images focuses on the $100. However, as the height increases, we focus not on the $100, but on falling and the consequences of the fall.

Positive Or Negative Mental Imagery Can Have Crucial Effects

Karl Wallenda was probably the greatest tightrope walker that ever lived. He walked across great distances, high in the air, and he did so without a net. Further, Karl Wallenda didn’t stop his breathtaking walks as he grew older. He did the same fabulous stunts in his seventies that he did as a young man in his twenties.

Than, in 1978 while performing a tightrope walk between two buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico, he fell to his death.

Several weeks later, his wife was interviewed on television regarding Wallenda’s last walk. “It was very strange,” she said. “For months prior to his performance, he thought about nothing else. But for the first time, he didn’t see himself succeeding. He saw himself falling.”

Wallenda’s wife went on to say that he even checked the installation and construction of the wire himself. “This,” she said, “was something Karl had never done previously.”

There seems little doubt that Karl Wallenda’s negative mental imagery contributed to his falling.

Positive Images Can Significantly Improve Your Self-Confidence

Just as negative images can hurt your self-confidence as a leader, positive images can help your self-confidence considerably.

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.” Garfield found that more effective executives practiced frequently practiced mental rehearsal. Less effective executives did not.

In his book, Peak Performers, Garfield describes how Soviet bloc performance experts in Milan, Italy confirmed his theories.

Garfield is an amateur weightlifter. However, hadn’t worked out in several months. When he had, his best lift had been 280 pounds, although previously when he had worked out regularly, he had done more.

The Soviets asked him what was the absolute maximum he thought he could lift right at that moment. He responded that he might be able to make 300 pounds in an exercise known as the bench press. In this exercise, you are flat on your back. You take a barbell off of two uprights. Next you lower the weight to your chest. Than you return the weight to the starting position.

With extreme effort, he just managed to make that amount. As Garfield himself said, “It was difficult – so difficult that I doubt I could have done it without the mounting excitement in the room.”

The Soviets than had Garfield lay back and relax. They put him through a series of mental relaxation exercises. Than they asked him to get up slowly and gently. When he did, they added 65 pounds to the 300 pound weight. Under normal circumstances, it would have been impossible for him to lift this weight.

He began to have negative images. Before they established themselves in his mind, the Soviets began a new mental exercise.

“Firmly, thoroughly, they talked me through a series of mental preparations. In my mind’s eye I saw myself approaching the bench. I visualized myself lying down. I visualized myself, with total confidence, lifting the 365 pounds.”

Much to Garfield’s surprise, he not lifted the 365-pound weight. He was also astounded to discover it easier to lift than the lighter weight had been earlier.[ii]

You Can Use Mental Rehearsal To Build Your Self-Confidence

I have used mental rehearsal techniques for many years. I can guarantee that not only will you find them effective, but that they are easy and painless with no after effects.

The secret is to first relax as much as you can, than to give yourself positive images. What I do is this. I lay back and get as relaxed as I can. Than I start with my toes and tell myself that my toes are becoming numb. I repeat this suggestion to myself several times.

From my toes, I go to my feet, legs, torso, etc. In every case I repeat the suggestion that the particular part of the body I am focusing on is becoming completely relaxed and numb.

When I am totally relaxed, I go to work on my positive imagery. Let’s say that the leadership situation that I want to build self-confidence in has to do with a meeting I am going to run.

In my mind I will picture everything about that meeting in detail. I will see the table, the lighting and the decorations. I will see the sights, hear the sounds, smell the smells and feel every sensation. I will see every individual who is participating in that meeting. I will rehearse every item on the agenda. In my mental imagery I will rehearse not only what I will say, but the responses from those I will lead as well. Naturally, in my mental rehearsal, everything will go the way I want it to go. In fact, I will make sure that all of my mental image rehearsals go perfectly.

After I complete the rehearsal once, I repeat the entire rehearsal again. I do it several times at a sitting. If the situation is particularly important, I may repeat the entire mental imagery process a couple times a day for several days.

Does it work? Amazingly, I have rarely failed when I used this imagery technique. It is true that reality does not always follow my preplanned script. Sometimes the changes are significant. But the results gained by seeing a favorable outcome over and over again has a dramatic effect. I never lack self-confidence in any leadership situation that I have mentally rehearsed.

Walter Anderson, who wrote the book, The Confidence Course says: “If you act as if you’re confident, even though you may not feel sure of yourself, your confidence will grow. If you firmly fix the image in your mind of the person you’d like to be, you will begin to become that person.”[iii]

Before I sign off this month, I want to tell you that my latest book Art of the Strategist, The: 10 Essential Principles for Leading Your Company to Victory is already listed at, even though it won’t be released until June. It has been recommended by the top leaders in a number of disciplines, and rights for translation and publication abroad have already been negotiated.


[i] Arnold Scwarzeneger with Douglas Kent Hall, Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder (New York: Fireside, 1997) p.24.

[ii] Charles Garfield, Peak Performers (Avon Books: New York, 1986) pp.72-73.

[iii] Walter Anderson, The Confidence Course (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997) p. 166.