Self-Discipline: An Under-Rated Leadership Skill

Last week, as I observed a leader handle a delicate inter-personal issue with great skill, it struck me that the successful result was influenced as much by what he didn’t do as much as by what he did.  While seeming “passive” on the
surface, the “not doing” took a great deal of active self-discipline – a very
under-appreciated leadership skill, I believe.

Don’t Underestimate the Soft-Spoken, Unassuming Guys

“David” (name changed to protect the “innocent”) is very low-key in nature – ever friendly, helpful and hopeful.

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is one example of the personal self-discipline brought to his daily work by the leader in this story (not pictured)

He is quietly supportive  in an “I’ve got your back” way — without ever having to say it because everyone knows it’s true.  While he doesn’t have much formal “power” in the company, he does have significant influence, flowing largely from his personal qualities.
If David sounds like what others have termed an “authentic leader,” I
would fully agree.  In this situation, his self-discipline allowed his authenticity (integrity, genuineness, and an unquestioned seeking to act in the best interests of the organization and the individuals involved) to come through and carry the day.

The “Not Doing” Part

The situation at hand was a long-simmering conflict between fellow senior managers – one Type-A, high-performing but abrasive, the other underperforming but affable.  David served in his usual role as a “sounding
board” for all sides (including the executive in charge). In each conversation,
he actively “heard” the concerns of the person before him, and gently shared ideas of resolution.  He was seen as an “honest broker” by all parties – neither “side” cared that the other was also speaking with him, because they had confidence that he would never share anything in an inappropriate or harmful way.

Where did “self discipline” come in? As it happens, David has some very definite opinions about the parties and incidents involved, some strongly and passionately held.  Yet, he never expressed an opinion to the parties, and never tried to influence the situation except in a way that was helpful to those involved.  He  shared only as much “truth” as he perceived each was ready to “hear” at any  given time.  In this way, helped bring about – slowly but surely – an evolving and “organic” solution that the participants felt came from them and suited their needs.

"With self-discipline, all things are possible." Theodore Roosevelt

While many would have been tempted to make a “soapbox” speech or two to advance his views during the many conversations, David scrupulously avoided doing so.  For all this, he received no “credit” for his role – except for the tacit “praise” that comes from others seeking him out for this same role time and again … and the thanks of this HR person, grateful to him for serving as a role model of professionalism  and self-discipline yet again. (Not a bad model for HR, indeed).

Lessons Learned

Among the manylessons of self-discipline I’ve learned from David in this situation and over the years are:

  • Discretion is truly the better part of valor – one can have as much (if not more) proper influence by what we don’t say
    as what we do say
  • There are some e-mails (and voicemails) that are much better to “delete” and ignore than respond to — no matter how “good” it might feel or how “justified” it might be to answer back
  • It’s “not about you”, it’s about the greater good – i.e., in order to be an honest broker, self-interest (and ego) must
    be put aside to focus on the good of those involved


While I’ve known David for many years, I’ve only recently realized how self-disciplined he is in many areas of his life.  An adherent of yoga and meditation (disciplining the mind, body, and spirit in alignment), he’s also a very active athlete (training the muscles and the will, again).  In fact, he just returned from summiting Mount Kilimanjaro for the first time at the age of 60.  I don’t know how I missed the “self-discipline” on display all along.

*** *** *** *** ***

What leaders do you know that exhibit great self-discipline?  What are their stories?

One response to “Self-Discipline: An Under-Rated Leadership Skill

  1. Very true! Somehow in all the boisterous style of #leadership, we have forgotten how enormous is the soft-power of such unassuming and rather ‘invisible’ leadership style.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s