Stop & Go


Over the last eight months, I’ve been writing periodically about character and leadership. Why is character so important in leaders? Because character is what leads you when you have to lead yourself.
You can read the introduction to the character series here. Today we look at that internal guidance mechanism known as self-discipline.


This past Sunday, I received a text from a leader that started like this:

“911. Do you have 10 minutes Monday morning?
I’m keeping my promise to talk with you
before I do what I really feel like doing,
which wouldn’t be good.”

“911” is code my leaders use for “I need to talk before our next scheduled session.” It doesn’t get activated very often, but when it does, I know it’s something serious. I had a good idea about the trigger for this email, which was confirmed when we talked first thing Monday.
For the past six months, this leader has been increasingly frustrated with his new board chair. A series of emails between the two of them over the weekend led to the “911” text. He had reached the point where he knew he was vulnerable to coming unhinged and telling off his chair with some colorful version of “Go pound sand!” Instead, he stopped himself. Pausing to settle down, he ultimately chose a more effective response.

Leaders must develop the self-discipline to stop and to go —
even when they don’t feel like it.

STOPPING: Leaders with self-discipline have the ability to stop when they would rather go. You hold back and show restraint. You avoid doing or saying those things that derail your effectiveness.
For example, you:

  • sit on an angry email that you’ve written in the heat of the moment
  • bite your tongue when a snide remark would feel great
  • limit your consumption of alcohol or sweets
  • resist looking at your phone when the person in front of you deserves your full attention

Many leaders struggle with this. Roy Baumeister, who co-authored the book Willpower with John Tierney, says that, “Self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time.”
GOING: Leaders with self-discipline have the ability to go when they would rather stop. You do those inconvenient, hard or unpleasant things that you need to do to be at your best as a leader.
For example, you:

  • have that difficult conversation promptly when your subordinate needs correction
  • manage your time proactively according to your priorities
  • exercise regularly
  • go to bed at a reasonable hour

And of course, the self-discipline of your team or company will likely be a reflection of you as its leader. Tony Schwartz, founder of The Energy Project, has studied the broader impact of self-discipline. He writes, “We’ve found in our work that skill at self-regulation creates huge competitive advantage.” *
So start today—for the good of you and your organization. Try this:

  1. Identify a behavior you would like to start/stop, do more/less of.
  2. Write down the benefits of starting/stopping this behavior.
  3. Enlist someone with whom you can be accountable.
  4. Start (or stop) doing it!
  5. Reflect on how this self-discipline impacts your leadership.

My own self-discipline was tested last Sunday when I received that “911” text from my leader. One of my self-disciplines is to preserve Sundays as a complete break from work. It gives me physical, intellectual, and emotional rest — enabling me to reenter the workweek fresh and ready. When I reached out to this leader first thing Monday, I was a better version of myself to help him be at his best.

Great leaders do hard things. Hard things require self-discipline.

* “The Skill that Matters Most,” from Harvard Business Review.