Leadership through Self Discipline

Leadership through Self Discipline

Dr. Bill Robinson

A mentor of mine once told me, “You can’t manage other people.  You can only manage yourself, and that’s hard enough.” 

At times, we have all sought to manage others’ behaviors, as we went about organizing groups, operating our institutions, cultivate discipline among our staff or just creating change.  When we do this, we are leveraging our authority instead of engaging in leadership.  This will often get us short-term results.  Faced with the demands of someone in a position of authority, people will comply.  But, compliance is not commitment.  And, in today’s complex and ever-changing world, we need energized, purpose-driven commitment if our organizations and our communities are going to continue to thrive.

Let’s look at the difference.  Authorities try to manage people and situations.  They have the answers; they tell people what to do, how to do it, and when to get it done by.  Leadership admits that it doesn’t have all the answers; it begins by asking questions that encourage shared discovery.  Leadership even allows others to self-determine how the group will work together. 

Through management, authority tries to minimize uncertainty and conflict.  Leadership faces uncertainty with courage and facilitates constructive conflict, trusting others to find common ground.  Authority takes for granted that others will act in accordance with their instructions.  Leadership is grateful for the commitment and creativity that others bring every day to their professional and volunteer work.  Authority offers carrots and sticks.  Leadership inspires through the power of a shared dream and personal connection.

Let’s face it – Leadership is difficult.  It requires us to be vulnerable.  It asks us to leverage our personal strengths – compassion, courage, curiosity, gratitude, humility, and integrity – to influence (not manage) how others work together.  Thus, each day, with great intention, leaders consider how they will show up so others will feel inspired and be guided to achieve their best.  We do this not by managing others but by managing our own emotions and behaviors.  We check our worst impulses and leverage our greatest gifts.  We don’t see others as the problem, but rather consider how a change in our own behavior may foster a change in theirs.

The good thing is that we can all learn to be better leaders, if we follow these three steps. First, as the Greek philosopher Socrates said “Know yourself.  What are the greatest strengths of my character?  The ancient Greeks called these virtues and in Hebrew it’s middot.  Am I particularly curious?  Compassionate?  Do I have great foresight?  Or a consistent sense of balance?   These are the foundational tools of leadership.  We each have different ones.  What are your strengths?  And, what are your weaknesses?  We all have them; we can improve upon them but we cannot expect to excel in every virtue.  To find out your strengths and weaknesses, you may want to take this quiz.

Second, reflect on your daily behaviors. If you are uniquely courageous, unafraid of risk, are you truly showing up each day in ways that display this middah (singular of middot)?  Or do the circumstances of your work and life lead you to be more circumspect?  A virtue is only a virtue if we live it.  Grab a journal and each day or week, look back.  When was I particularly courageous?  When could I have been more courageous?  How might I live this middah more consistently in my daily life?  The next day or week, give it another try.  Be vulnerable, know that you won’t get it right every day.  But, keep on reflecting and trying to live it better.  Like the apocryphal musician trying to get to Carnegie Hall, leadership takes practice, practice, practice.

Third, visit the leadership dogo!  Musicians practice their scales, sports players run routines, and martial arts masters return to the basic forms.  Through these disciplines, they continually train the “muscles” they will need to be great performers.  Our middot are the muscles we use to perform leadership.  As such, we can train them just like musicians, sports players, and martial arts masters.  As Mr. Miyagi instructed Daniel in the movie Karate Kid, he was to begin learning karate by waxing a car, painting a fence, and polishing a floor.  Through “waxing on and then waxing off” over and over again, he developed the muscle memory needed to eventually master karate.  You can become a more compassionate leader through daily acts of tzedakah (righteous giving), more humble and courageous by learning something that is hard for you to do, and more filled with gratitude by saying a 100 blessings a day.  The good thing is that you don’t actually need to travel to a physical space; any place can become your leadership dojo.  Just commit to a daily or weekly discipline of training the middot muscles that form the foundation of your leadership.

We can all learn to be better leaders.  It’s actually at the core of being human.  As the modern Orthodox theologian, Rabbi Soloveitchic wrote “Judaism brought to light a person’s obligation to create oneself.”

Insights & Resources

View All Insights & Resources
Inspiring Others

Leadership through Story

Read Insight
More Resources

What Ruth Can Teach Us About Celebrating Shavuot

Read Insight
Leadership and Balance

Leadership Through Purpose

Read Insight