The Destructive Side of Self-Discipline: When Self-Discipline is the Wrong Approach

Discipline is a trait of many great leaders. Individuals are often given a position of leadership because they have shown that they have the strength to follow through with producing impactful results, often in the face of challenge. When we work up the discipline to follow through on something challenging and meaningful, it feels good. When we work through resistance, we build strength and we learn more about the work, the world, and ourselves, too.

To successfully step into a position of leadership, you must practice self-discipline. Practicing self-discipline as a leader means that you sometimes give yourself work to do that you are at first resistant to doing but know that it’s needed – you know it’s right and it must be done for the good of the greater whole. It may mean that you set a strict timeline for yourself to finish something important, sit down, and work on it even when you feel like procrastinating. When you are self-disciplined, there’s an intrinsic motivation and you don’t need your leader or others to discipline you in order to take action and follow through. You don’t need constant incentives and consequences from external sources to motivate you.

In my new book, Awake Ethics, Discipline is the 7th principle I present in the guidebook. I talk about how to generate natural Discipline for your team members instead of using carrots and consequences to incentivize and discipline them toward objectives. I also discuss how in order yo cultivate natural Discipline for your team members, you must have self-discipline to lead by example. Discipline through motivation tethered to a meaningful mission is important in order to keep the team engaged and progressing toward objectives.

However, sometimes self-discipline is not constructive for leaders. When practiced in excess, self-discipline can cause negative effects that limit our potential and keep ourselves and our team from progressing. In this post, I’ll detail three scenarios where self-discipline is not the right mindset for leaders and how to gauge when you may be using self-discipline for these reasons that really require deeper analysis and creativity.

 

When should you practice self-discipline and when is resistance telling you that it is actually right to back off and change course?

 

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In Awake Ethics, I talk about Discipline as a principle symbolized by fire. Self-discipline is like an inner fire that drives us to take action and follow through even when it’s not easy. The fire in your heart and in your belly keeps you going. This is natural, organic self-discipline driven by true, intrinsic motivation. When this strong fire is alive, it naturally motivates us. Even when things aren’t easy and we may initially have resistance toward doing the work, we connect back to that strong motivation we have and find a way to persist. However, fires can grow and literally burn us out. When our fire of discipline gets too strong, we may over work or overtax ourselves when working toward our objectives. This impacts our team members, too. I have seen many leaders driven by passion and motivation also work their teams to the point of burnout. The team often derives energy from the leader and this motivates them too, but different people have different thresholds for work capacity. If your discipline is too strong and there’s no balance of taking time away from the work and rejuvenating, discipline and cause your team and you to burnout.

The second scenario where self-discipline is destructive when you build certain rituals and practices of self-discipline that cause you to disconnect and disengage from the real effects and impacts of the work. I call this numb-out self-discipline. This is very dangerous. To keep a steady paycheck, satisfy ego, or to avoid change, leaders may take or continue with a job and build certain rituals and routines to make the day-to-day easier. They are disciplined to follow through and continue with the work but they are not tethered to the mission. They are not aware of the actions or the real impacts of what they are doing. They may be motivated by money, a “have to” mindset, or ego and so they generate the self-discipline to keep going with shallow, false motivation. Over time, stress may build and it’s harder and harder to continue. This is where building self-discipline is not constructive. Numb-out self-discipline is actually just building barriers around a problem that needs to be addressed. It is numbing a greater issue. If the mission, impact, management, or culture is something you need to practice numb-out self-discipline in order to follow through on your work, you actually need to listen to that, not just push through it without a plan of action to change. Over time, this type of self-discipline causes organizations with shallow missions built on ego and force to emerge and enables corrupt leadership driven by greed and laziness. It causes waste and vicious cycles of action without meaningful impact. Self-discipline, when practiced in this way, can also of course cause burnout. Many people are burned out along the way working for leaders and companies that practice numb-out self-discipline.

Finally, self-discipline can limit our potential by limiting us creatively. When we start to go through the motions in such a disciplined manner, without a lot of awareness and healthy skepticism, we stagnate. There are definitely some periods of our careers – challenging projects or times we are going through a tough personal phase – where we need to amp up the fire, persist, and just follow through. However, this is not sustainable. Continuing to work in the same way day after day without periodically stopping to zoom out and ask bigger questions builds ways of working lead to a dead end. As leaders, we must be creative in order to progress. Going through the same motions day-to-day without a creative mindset limits the team’s potential to progress with new, better ways of working. We have to sometimes break away from discipline and routines to bring in fresh energy and ideas to our work.

 

The solution?

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If you find yourself practicing (or feel that you may be practicing) any of these types of destructive self-discipline, take time to step away from the work. Take a morning of pause. If you feel like you can’t do this during the week, take a weekend morning or full day to yourself and pause. Don’t watch TV, don’t numb out more, just take time alone. Let go of the regular routines and cycles. Take time to reset and experience time without the regular routines and cycles.

Another way to reset destructive self-discipline practices is to simply change your routine. Challenge yourself to go to a new coffee shop instead of the routine one or go to a new exercise class. Become a healthy skeptic about something. Develop a new interest and follow it. This is the foundation of building greater clarity and also the gateway to creativity and informed action.

Take time to ask and reflect on some of the deeper questions about your motivation around your work and which routines serve you versus starve you. You will emerge from this time with greater awareness about what self-discipline practices and routines really fuel your service. You will emerge with more clarity about your motivations and objectives. This newfound clarity about your motivation and objectives tethers you to that mission and path – naturally cultivating the genuine inner fire of self-discipline.

Would you consider yourself self-disciplined? When do you use the fire of self-discipline for good and where do you use self-discipline in excess?

 

Check out my new book, Awake Ethics, for more insights and interactive exercises for leadership ethics.

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