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First rule of holes: If you’re in one, stop digging.

Never the typical girl-child, I’ve been an avid war buff since grade school. I really have no idea how it happened; it just is.

In military history you will find many examples of great leaders possessing functional thinking minds. In grade school, girls with functional thinking minds and a strong leadership mentality were viewed more as threats than assets to the mid-century classroom.

I really thought that would have changed by the time my own children went to school. Particularly as I had waited almost 40 years to start a family — plenty of time for revolutionary societal change to occur. Yet I saw no evidence of it at any parent/teacher conference I ever attended.

I’m also an avid reader of biographies. I especially like those where the subject is an original thinker, understands the opposite of success isn’t failure but conformity, and refuses to be deterred by obstacles or adversity, regardless of form.

There’s more than one way to win a war

In the epic joint biography, Masters and Commanders, author Andrew Roberts explores the degree to which the course of the second world war turned on the relationships and temperaments of four of the strongest personalities of the twentieth century: political masters Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt and the commanders of their armed forces, General Sir Alan Brooke and General George C. Marshall.

If ever there was a perfect storm of personalities in the theatre of war, this is it. Each was exceptionally tough-willed and strong-minded, and each was certain only he knew best how to win the war.

Remind you of anyone? Anything? (I’m seeing a parallel to our industry here. Some marriages are like this too.)

Roberts traces the mutual suspicion and admiration, the rebuffs and the charm, the often-explosive disagreements and wary reconciliations of these titans so we can appreciate their motives and imperatives as they fought to destroy Nazism. Their war is over; ours is never-ending.

The war we wage within our selves is an ongoing battle that takes opportunity as its prisoner. It is a war that can only be won by unwavering commitment to strategies for growing self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is a technical term referring to the expectation that one can master a specific challenge — meaning you believe in your own ability to succeed in a particular situation. (Unlike ordinary language in which a word may mean different things to different people, a technical term has a single definition.)

Your attitudes, abilities, and cognitive skills make up your self-system. This system plays a major role in how you perceive what you experience and how you behave in different situations. Self-efficacy is an essential part of this self-system; our conditioned habits of response are another component of it.

How self-efficacy (or lack of it) affects you

Canadian psychologist, Albert Bandura, and others studying this human trait, have found that a person’s self-efficacy plays a major role in how goals, tasks, and challenges are approached.

Virtually all people can identify goals they want to accomplish, things they would like to change, and things they would like to achieve. However, if you are like most people, you may also be aware that putting your plans into action is not quite as simple as you might have hoped.

Here are the differences observed in the relevant psychological studies.

People with a strong sense of self-efficacy:

  • view challenging problems and psychological frustrations as tasks to be mastered
  • develop deeper interest in the activities in which they participate
  • form a stronger sense of commitment to their interests and activities
  • use an action-oriented approach in their thinking and problem solving
  • recover quickly from setbacks and disappointments

People with a weak sense of self-efficacy:

  • avoid challenging tasks or abandon them at the first sign of difficulty
  • believe that difficult tasks and situations are beyond their capabilities
  • focus on personal failings and negative outcomes
  • tend to concentrate on how they feel and why they feel that way rather than taking action
  • quickly lose confidence in personal abilities

I can solve any business problem” is an example of confident expectation in a person with high self-efficacy in that area. That same person may have low self-efficacy in another area: “I am so shy it will be a waste of time to go to the conference networking event.

How to increase self-efficacy

Bandura identified four major sources of self-efficacy:

1. Mastery Experiences — The more you succeed at doing things, the stronger your sense of self-efficacy becomes. Which is why repetition breeds success.

2. Social Modeling — Seeing others like yourself succeed at similar tasks is another important source of self-efficacy. It strengthens your belief that you have the same capabilities and can do it too. (This is another reason you should keep an eye on what your competitors are doing.)

3. Social Persuasion — People can also be persuaded to believe they have the skills and capabilities to succeed. Encouragement from others helps you overcome self-doubt. For example, often the support you receive in industry forums, in knowing you are not alone, is enough to get you to focus on giving your best to the challenge at hand.

4. Psychological Responses — Our own conditioned responses, moods, stress levels and emotional reactions to situations also play an important role. All have an effect on how we really feel about our abilities in specific situations. What that effect is may be an unwelcome bad habit today. We can choose to change that response moving forward by channeling what we are feeling differently. That’s what happens when a singer like Beyonce admits to being nervous before going on stage, yet somehow manages to direct that energy into providing a truly great show.

Perseverance is a strategic weapon of war

As you would expect, self-efficacy influences performance.

People with high self-efficacy can tolerate physical discomfort and surprising amounts of frustration with their businesses. Yet they persevere, continue to creatively solve problems, and stay the course. They do not stop until, one way or another, they accomplish what they set out to do.

People with low self-efficacy tend to abandon the dream after experiencing minor discomforts or frustrations.

None of the masters and commanders had issues with self-efficacy. They were able to achieve worthwhile outcomes requiring them to tolerate extreme discomfort and frustration. As a business owner, you’ll be tested often in this manner.

For the true entrepreneur, persevering in the face of challenge is part of the grand adventure. Failure will be tolerated. Giving up is never an option.

Discomfort and frustration, however, do not evoke an heroic reaction from people with low self-efficacy. Instead of triggering resolve and creative problem solving, setbacks and discomfort often bring on negative emotional reactions such as feelings of shame, hopelessness, or self-loathing. These emotions are business killers and often result in a decision to quit rather than rise to the challenge.

It is also important to distinguish between process and outcome. Owning a business that is stable and performing well is the process goal. Achieving success is the byproduct of doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, whether you feel like it or not.

For the entrepreneur, the real goal of going into business is to experience the exhilaration — the peak experience — that results from taking on the challenge. To know what it means to be the master of your fate and captain of your soul.

William Ernest Hensley captured it perfectly in this poem (one of my favourites!):


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

The message to all of us is this: To succeed in business, we have to be able to cope with emotional reactions to setback and failure without being at risk of giving in to them or being defeated by circumstances. Our enemy’s greatest weapon is demoralization. Self-efficacy neutralizes that weapon and renders it powerless.

Review the areas of your life in which you are usually successful — whatever they may be — then recreate that feeling.

Now, imagine you are facing a new challenge in this area: What is your attitude toward it? How would you expect to react to the discomforts and frustrations you encounter?

Take that same feeling of confidence and certainty with you to your next business challenge. Do this over and over again.

That is how we become masters and commanders. That is how we remain the captains of our souls.


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