Not too long ago, I was asked to identify the one leadership characteristic that rises above all others as the most important. Though I was intrigued by the question and was prepared to give it a great deal of thought, I came up with an answer almost immediately. It was a trait instilled in me while serving in the military: self-discipline.
Self-discipline has been described as the ability to control one's emotions, overcome weakness, and have the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite the cost. It's a form of selective training that moves you forward in order to reach your goals and objectives. It means staying on track and not letting anything derail you. Effective leaders must have self-discipline or face losing themselves in a sea of temptation, the abyss of laziness, and the expanse of political expediency.
On a more visceral level, you also have that voice in your head that challenges you to stop working so hard and take the easy way out. It's that voice that will talk you out of anything you're trying to accomplish when you feel the slightest bit uncomfortable. It's the side of you that fills you with regret when you reflect on your decision to quit later on. So how do we incorporate self-discipline into our daily lives and get control over that voice in our heads? It starts with making better choices that include making a commitment, staying focused, and prioritizing.
When you make a commitment, you are making a contract with yourself; only you can break that contract. Don't make the commitment unless you plan on keeping it. Get away from blaming others, finding fault in the situation, or making excuses for your poor choices. In other words, own it. If you can't go all in, then stay all out.
Let's look at dieting as an example. By now, everyone knows that diets don't work. It's a short-term fix that usually makes things worse. If you don't make healthy lifestyle changes, all your efforts were in vain. If you don't have enough self-discipline to stay the course, just eat what you want. At least that way you'll save the drama of lying to yourself and your friends.
Staying focused is the hardest part of self-discipline. There are so many distractions to contend with. The funny part is, it's only a distraction if you let it become one. Do you have to take that phone call? Do you have to check your email? Is that incoming text message so important you have to stop everything to read it? There's a powerful word that you must learn if you want to get a grip on staying focused; that word is "no."
No, I won't answer the phone; no, I won't check my email; no, I won't answer that text message. Staying focused gives you power. You are in control, not someone or something else. It gives you the time you need to finish what you started. Turn goals into smaller objectives and make them part of a routine. You'd be surprised at how quickly a routine becomes a habit. Let's face it, outside of an exigent circumstance, nothing should get in your way without a good reason.
Books on leadership often suggest that you prioritize as part of your daily routine. There can only be one number one priority followed by a second, third, and fourth. They can't all be number one, even though some supervisors will try to make you think so. In the past, I have communicated this reality to one of my supervisors by asking which number one priority he wanted me to work on first.
Having self-discipline is part of being a professional. You can immediately identify who possesses it and who doesn't. The ones that have it always look sharp in uniform. They look like they are in good shape. They go above and beyond in the performance of their duties. They are the ones who others often ask for advice.
To have self-discipline means you are always being tested. You might not get promoted, be allowed to attend a course, or be denied a transfer into a specialty unit. Pass these tests by coming to work with a smile on your face. Keep your high standards even though some people may snub you. Having self-discipline means not succumbing to the temptation to become part of the circus. I think we already have more clowns than we need. The Greek philosopher Aristotle said it best: "We are what we repeatedly do; excellence then is not an act, but a habit."
Amaury Murgado retired a senior lieutenant from the Osceola County Sheriff's Office (Florida) with over 29 years of experience. He also retired from the Army Reserve as a master sergeant. He holds a Master of Political Science degree from the University of Central Florida.