Why You Need Self-Control In Leadership Matters

May 18, 2018 6 Min Read

An Essential Leadership Trait that is Not Often Discussed

Boiled down to its essence, self-control is the ability to think before acting.

Self-control, or discipline, is an essential character trait that every leader must possess.

Nevertheless, self-control rarely shows up on any list of the essential traits that make a good leader (with a notable exception of Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence).

Vision, passion, communication skills, decisiveness, confidence, clarity, and even empathy pop up regularly on popular lists, but not self-control.

The explanation for the neglect of self-control and discipline?

Consideration of leadership qualities tends to look at behaviour and results rather than character or fundamental psychological capacities.

Lacking Self-Control is Detrimental 

While the corporate world tends to ignore self-control, professional investors study and value it.

Seasoned investors know they are prone to mistakes in judgment when emotion overrides rational decision-making.

They also know this can and will happen to them. They remain vigilant and search for ways to prevent emotion-driven mistakes, including reacting out of fear or excessive caution or being influenced by greed or envy.

I am a fan of the American television series Billions, which in one way can be seen as one long meditation on self-control.

For the show’s protagonists, Bobby Axelrod and Chuck Rhoades, self-control is their greatest asset. And losing control leads to their ultimate undoing.

Lack of Self-Control: Reading The Signs

The second place where great attention is given to self-control as a leadership capacity is in the leadership model described in the United States Army Field Manual on Leader Development.

The Army (which prefers the term discipline when talking about self-control) usefully lays out observable signs that self-control is deficient:

  • Difficulty adapting (emotionally or cognitively) to unforeseen problems, bad news, or conflicting information
  • Reacting viscerally or angrily when receiving bad news
  • Offering the first response that comes to mind
  • Emotional outbursts

Conversely, a leader who shows strength in the dimension of self-control displays composure and confidence, staying task-focused in a stressful situation.

A Lesson from General Grant 

Ron Chernow’s biography, Grant, is a fascinating study of one exceptional man’s life-long struggle with self-control.

In early adulthood, Grant’s lack of discipline − most notably binge-drinking, but also an inability to apply himself in work situations that didn’t interest him − led him to the edge of self-destruction on many occasions.

However, as a successful general in his early 40s, while in the throes of battle with tens of thousands of lives and the fate of the nation at stake, he displayed exceptional calm, confidence, and utter composure that astonished observers.

The Inner Chaos of Decision-Making 

It’s a false dichotomy to think of humans as being either emotional or rational. In fact, we’re both and more at all times.

Think about it as a regulatory system. Fears, desires, impulses, needs, wishes, convictions and values are constantly pushing upward within us.

These are necessary to create a sense of meaning and fuel motivation and action. After all, why do anything if we don’t feel anything about it?

Meanwhile, a host of other emotions crop up in reaction to our decisions and activities − anxiety about failure, pride, longing for affirmation, impatience and many others − bombarding us further as we try to make a decision or take an action.

This noise from the parts of our brain driving emotion has pressure behind it, and will lead to impulsive action if not regulated.

A bunch of higher mental functions that psychologists call “executive functions” – self-control being a fundamental one – are responsible for preventing chaos in the face of this pressure.

These allow us to wait to make a decision rather than acting on our first impulse. To see the potential consequences of actions. To bargain with ourselves, offering greater rewards if gratification of wishes is delayed.

Self-control is a Limited Resource 

Interesting research by a team of social psychologists led by Roy F Baumeister suggests that self-control is a limited resource.

If we spend too much of it in one place, we won’t have any reserves left to use in another area.

Diminished self-control does not always show itself dramatically in an angry outburst or major meltdown. Subtle upticks in a sense of vulnerability or irritability can also be signs that this resource is depleted.

Like any basic human trait or capacity, some of us innately have a harder time controlling ourselves than others do.

People also vary in how much time and effort it takes to regain control once it is lost. It’s worth knowing your own vulnerability to loss of self-control and what you need to do to restore it when it slips.

This is not to say that you can’t express emotions at work − but you shouldn’t put raw emotion into action.

It’s fine to say “I am angry about…”

But once you raise your voice, or repeat yourself endlessly, talk over someone or swear, you’re using language as an action, not for communication.

What Diminishes Self-Control? 

It’s anything that throws off ongoing regulation of your mind and body. Alcohol and other substances are obvious culprits.

One of alcohol’s first effects is to disinhibit the brain, meaning that impulses strengthen and normal brakes on them weaken.

Insufficient sleep, too long hours and too few breaks from work can deplete self-control. Low blood sugar can affect some people quite dramatically.

Mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder can lead to intermittent difficulties with self-control. Executive function disorders like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) can also cause challenges.

The Army manual emphasises a key contributor to loss of self-control − keeping emotions overly contained and not finding opportunities for appropriate release.

Running low on self-control? 

Check in with your physical self − are you getting enough sleep? Do you take breaks from working? Are you skipping meals? Do you ever go outside during daylight? Are you drinking enough water?

If you find yourself losing it, drink a bottle of water, eat a protein/complex carb snack, get outside.

Look for ways to release tension and give your emotions free rein − exercise, doing something creative and absorbing, or even something repetitive and mindless.

Spend some time thinking about why your emotions are getting the best of you.

Do you need to tackle a problem in your life that is lowering the threshold where emotions take over?

Consider the implications of the theory that self-control is a limited resource.

How can you make sure you don’t use it up in one part of your day or segment of your life and have nothing left in reserve?

The Art of Delaying 

Develop a habit of waiting.

Never send an email in anger. Don’t confront a colleague or tackle a loaded issue if you’re not feeling settled.

Make sure you take your time when making decisions and ask yourself if you’ve gathered all possible sources of information.

Don’t take on a challenge you find very difficult if you’re struggling with an illness, depression or preoccupying problem.

It’s not that you shouldn’t work − just do things that are routine rather than demanding.

Repeated loss of self-control that manifests itself as aggressive behaviour or demeaning language has no place in the workplace, whether it’s the chief executive officer, a manager or any employee.

Any one of us can slip once. But a pattern of behaviour that betrays a lack of self-control should always be seen as a serious problem with significant personal and business consequences.

Reposted with permission on Leaderonomics.com.

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Prudy is the founder of Invantage Advising. She has 35 years of experience as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and advises leaders in business and finance on the underlying psychology of critical decisions. She can be found on Twitter @invantageadvis.

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