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If at First You Don't Succeed, Believe Harder- At Lunch with Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Posted in

9/19/2004
By By Claudia H. Deutsch


ROSABETH MOSS KANTER is one confident lady.

A reporter invites her to a lengthy luncheon interview and lets her pick the place. Now, Ms. Kanter certainly knows that reporters - particularly this one - will print their impressions of people and places along with whatever facts they glean. Nonetheless, her choice is an informal self-service lunch at her spacious home in Edgarton, on Martha's Vineyard. (For the record, the house is gorgeous.)

She also knows that a photographer is coming along. Less confident people might have carefully applied makeup, dressed up a bit, certainly styled their hair. Not Ms. Kanter. It was a lazy Tuesday on the Vineyard, her cocker spaniel puppy was frisking all over the place, and she wasn't going to spoil it with froufrou (as opposed to the reporter, who wore a dress, jewelry and face paint).

So who better to write a book called "Confidence," which was published last month by Crown Business?

"Confidence isn't optimism or pessimism, and it's not a character attribute,'' said Ms. Kanter, 61. "It's the expectation of a positive outcome."

As Ms. Kanter sees it, talent, intelligence and knowledge are nice, but confidence is essential. Not arrogance or conceit, mind you: those traits lead people to be complacent, or to overshoot. But she believes that someone with confidence, defined as a belief that persistence and hard work will yield results, will win out most every time over equally talented but insecure people.

Ms. Kanter, who is a consultant and Harvard Business School professor when she's not writing books - "Confidence'' is her 16th - parses the idea even further. She believes that self-confidence is less important than confidence that things will work out, and that the most lasting form of confidence is often not self-generated, but nurtured by others. She posits that sports teams win because coaches instill a belief that they will, and that children succeed when parents and schools create an environment that encourages them to do their best.

"Confidence is contagious, but so is failure,'' she said. "Even the Yankees will lose if you persuade them that they will.''

Ms. Kanter knows from whence she speaks. She is a frequent and usually facile public speaker, and a well-credentialed one: she has 21 honorary degrees and numerous mentions on lists of influential or powerful women. Yet she still winces at the memory of a talk she gave to a group of Asian chief executives a few years ago. First, the program organizer warned her that "these people were not used" to people like her. Then she was preceded by a "rabidly anti-American and anti-Western'' Malaysian politician. "I felt I was going to fail - and sure enough, I was awkward, and forgot facts and figures.''

It was an uncharacteristic - but not isolated - failure in a life generally marked by success.

Ms. Kanter was born in Cleveland. Her father was a lawyer and her mother a homemaker. She and her younger sister, Myra, had a "benign childhood,'' she recalled.

"I have never blamed my parents for anything that went wrong in my life," she added. "But they were never as ambitious for me as I was for myself.''

Her ambition set in early. At 8, she printed business cards that said "child psychologist''; at 11, she and a friend wrote a mystery novel; at 12, she learned to type, then entered an essay contest and won a typewriter.

At Bryn Mawr College, Ms. Kanter earned degrees in psychology and sociology. In her junior year, she married Stuart Kanter, a psychology student at the University of Pennsylvania. His career took them to Michigan, where she tried to get a job in journalism or advertising, but failed. So she went for a doctorate in sociology at the University of Michigan. "Imagine - if I'd gotten a job I'd probably be an advertising writer today,'' she said.

The couple soon moved to Boston, he as a professor of organizational behavior at H