What confidence means

What confidence means

This article was first published in Business Times on 15 January 2021

The first time I visited one of the smaller Cerebos factories I noticed a particular worker. He was about mid-fifties. There were sixty seven people in the factory but he stood out – even before I got to speak to him. Looking across the works floor, he distinguished himself by how he walked, by his easy, but clearly observant dealings with his colleagues and by his distinctive trouser braces – bright blue with an ancient Egyptian symbol on them. Flashy? Slightly, I suppose, but his clothes spoke of work, dusty, a little frayed, shirt sleeves rolled up. There was just something about him that made me head straight to where he was and start chatting to him.

He was very jolly. Polite, slightly deferential perhaps, but quietly confident that what he had to say was relevant and worth listening to. I met Ron many times, always in the midst of the factory noise and when the plant was busy. I never took him for a coffee – it seemed to me that to do so would embarrass him, perhaps even seem a little patronising. He always told me what I wanted to know, sometimes by a silence rather than by words. Sometimes with a smile. I didn’t ask why he wasn’t a foreman or a person of authority. He seemed to fit such a role perfectly. Perhaps he didn’t want to be. Perhaps his boss didn’t want him to be. I never knew and it didn’t matter.

The cool nonchalance of confidence
Looking back I can say that he was a man of confidence – confidence in himself and confidence he would expect others to place in him. You always have to be suspicious about people like Ron. Good imitators, aka actors, can fake confidence and self-certainty. Rogues and scoundrels perfect the art. It’s difficult to tell the genuine at a glance but over several contacts – especially if they are some time apart – you can usually suss them out. Ron was genuine, I never doubted that. The most important of the lessons I learned from him was that you have largely to forget about yourself to be confident. Not totally, of course, or you wouldn’t get the colourful trouser braces right.

For sure you must stop thinking about how you present yourself and what other people are thinking of you. In fact, the secret is to change your mindset completely and focus wholly on the person or people you are with. Many years ago Danny La Rue came to Singapore. He was, at the time, about the only famous drag queen in the world, something Singapore was not used to. He was very conscious that his Aussie act of an overweight, vulgar, glitterati society lady was a bit risqué for us. Part of his act was to get a member of the audience onto the stage and somewhat tease them – not something Singaporeans generally like.

Reading people correctly is key
The stage lights were dazzling him and I could see him staring through them into the audience to see if he could identify a suitable victim. What was he looking for? Someone self-confident enough to take some stage teasing without being embarrassed. He found her – it was my wife. A remarkably good judgment on his part because Eliza can handle a wide range of people and most situations. It was a real treat to see two confident people working together on a stage in front of a Singapore audience. Since then, Wild Rice have shown us the way to amazing stage confidence. The plays they perform are a vital part of any society’s development.

Does confidence come from experience?
Perhaps partially, but I would express it more as practice. Rather than constantly trying to forget yourself — a somewhat self-defeating exercise – you are better to practice the habit of focusing on the other person, searching for clues about who they are, what they believe, how they behave and whether you can trust them. Play the game of ‘Spot the Significant Clues about the Person you are Talking to’. Their clothing and jewellery (if any) will tell you a lot. Their face is, of course, highly relevant but the mouth is a better indicator of a person’s mood than their eyes. You can fake the eyes too easily. The mouth gives you away after less than half a minute.

Gait matters too
I was once taught how to walk into a room by a famous dancer, Tamara Karsavina. She had been Prima Ballerina with the Mariinsky Ballet in St Petersburg in 1917. She gave us one of the most valuable evenings on the first ever UK Communications Course run by the British Institute of Directors in 1960. Mdm Karsavina was joining us for dinner. I was Chair that evening and I asked her if she was going to give us a talk – and if not, how she was going to ‘sing for her supper’. Most of the world authorities who attended the eight dinners we held during the course spoke for a few minutes then answered questions. Ballerinas don’t generally give talks, so my question was apposite. “No,” she said, “No talk. I will teach you all how to walk into a gathering of strangers.”

Her lesson was best demonstrated a few years later when I went to a reception in New York to meet Robert Kennedy. He might have been taught by Mdm Karsavina. On coming through the door he paused and scanned the audience briefly. He identified two or three people he knew and smiled and nodded at them, then walked over to someone he didn’t know but guessed could handle him. After talking to this person he moved to someone he knew. Thus he zig-zagged across the room giving the maximum number of people possible the chance to see and join in a conversation with him. Mdm Karsavina and Mr Kennedy were truly great lessons in confidence.

As we start a New Year with truly challenging health problems and unprecedented economic difficulties ahead, it behoves us all to address the question of our personal confidence. Those we manage need us to be confident.

But the person who needs it most, to stride the storms ahead, is ourselves.