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 with heavy responsibilities must have. Nevertheless, self-control rarely shows up on any list of the essential traits that make a good leader (with the notable exception of Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence). Vision, passion, communication skills, decisiveness, confidence, clarity, even empathy all pop up regularly on these popular lists, but not self-control. The explanation for the neglect of self-control and discipline? Consideration of leadership qualities tends to look at behavior and results rather than character or fundamental psychological capacities.
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 all of them. They remain vigilant and search for ways to prevent emotion-driven mistakes including “jumping on the bandwagon,” reacting out of fear or excessive caution or being unduly influenced by greed or envy. I am a fan of the television series Billions, which in one way can be seen as one long meditation on self-control. For both of the show’s protagonists, Bobby Axelrod and Chuck Rhoades, self-control is their greatest asset. And losing control leads to their ultimate undoing.
The second place that great attention is paid to self-control as a leadership capacity is in the admirable leadership model described in detail in the Army Field Manual on Leader Development. The Army (which prefers the term discipline to talk 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.
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 an astonishingly 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 a preternatural calm, confidence and utter composure that astonished observers.
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 or exposure, 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 emotional parts of our brain 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.
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 arena.
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.
All this is not to say that you can’t express emotion 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?
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 illness such as bipolar disorder can lead to intermittent difficulties with self-control. Executive function disorders like ADHD can also cause challenges.
The Army manual emphasizes a key contributor to loss of self-control—keeping emotions overly contained and not finding opportunities for appropriate release.
What Can You Do If You’re 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 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 emotion takes 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?
Above All, Practice 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 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 behavior or demeaning language has no place in the workplace, whether it’s the CEO, a manager or any employee. Any of us can slip once. But a pattern of behavior that betrays a lack of self-control should always be seen as a serious problem with significant personal and business consequences.