Leadership & Character – Self-Control

Control your emotions text concept

Over the past few months, I have offered insights into the various attributes possessed by leaders who act with character.  Each of these character attributes contributes to the leader’s ability to make positive, character-based decisions.  One attribute I have not yet explored is self-control.  After reviewing various dictionary definitions I’ve landed on the following themes that express the meaning of self-control:  the ability to resist or delay an impulse; the ability to control oneself – particularly emotions and desires; and the ability to stop yourself from doing something you want to do, but may not be in your best interests.

Clearly, we don’t want to do things that are not in our best interests. However, applying the nature vs. nurture debate, I’ve met many people who believe that self-control is something you are born with – or not – and there’s really not much you can do about it.  So, I’d like to explore two questions:  “How does self-control impact leadership?”; and “Can an individual change their level of self-control and impulsiveness or are we resigned to accept a hardwired attribute that can’t be altered or modified?”

How Does Self-Control Impact Leadership?

As we tackle the first question, I think there are two key areas of impact. The first area of impact is relationships. Leaders who act impulsively and without much self-control often negatively impact their relationships with others.  My own lack of self-control growing up was mostly manifested by a short temper.  Playing golf, if I hit a bad shot, I would pound the club into the ground and openly complain about the golf ball or my clubs.  At one stage in my late teens, my father told me that he wouldn’t play golf with me anymore unless I calmed down and controlled my temper.  None of these outbursts helped me.  Most often, they resulted in “withdrawals from the emotional bank accounts” of others that ultimately damaged relationships and my level of credibility and influence with others.  I’m sure that this lack of self-control left people with a negative image with respect to my character.

Individuals in leadership positions can suffer the same kinds of responses from the people they lead as I received from my father. Leaders who snap at people, yell at people or who make insensitive statements because of their lack of emotional control are making withdrawals from the emotional bank accounts of others. Over longer periods of time, these constant withdrawals damage relationships and negatively impact employee engagement and discretionary effort. The leaders are often unaware of the impact of their actions because of a reluctance to engage in confrontation particularly when someone is emotional or angry. All this leads to an erosion of the leader’s influence.

In addition to the negative impact on relationships, impulsive action can also lead to poor decision-making. When making decisions, leaders can miss important information if they are not able to resist an impulse or control an emotional outburst. In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman outlines the importance of being aware of our emotions and our intuition and the impact they can have when trying to make a decision based on logic and evidence.

Can We Change Our Behavioural Tendencies of Self-Control?

Having established that impulsiveness and a lack of self-control can negatively impact the leader’s ability to manage relationships and the leader’s ability to make good decisions, the next question is:  “What can we do about this?”. I have encountered many people who take the position that their impulsiveness and lack of self-control is simply something that they and others will have to live with. While this may at first seem like a reasonable conclusion, research indicates that we have a much greater degree of control over how we act than the “this is just who I am” mentality would suggest.

Individuals and leaders who take the position that they can’t change are really adopting a victim mindset. There are many examples of people who have positively impacted their level of impulsiveness and self-control by simply changing their mindset and making better choices. It’s like flipping a switch that focuses on “this is who I choose to be” as opposed to “this is who I am”. I’m cognizant of the fact that I’ve used the phrase “by simply changing their mindset” – with the emphasis on the word “simply”. The truth is that the strategy for building a higher level of self-control and reducing one’s level of impulsiveness is actually quite simple. However, we shouldn’t confuse the word simple with the word easy as this may require a great deal of self-discipline and hard work to change habits.

Conflict and Confrontation, and Difficult Dialogue

For the past eight years I have been doing research and have been facilitating training sessions on the art of managing difficult dialogue that involves conflict and confrontation. Conflict and confrontation often intersect with impulsiveness and a lack of self-control. However, if we understand how our mind and body works and if we make a commitment to a ”this is who I choose to be” mindset, we will find that there are a number of strategies that can enable us to exercise much greater levels of self-control which results in strengthening our character.

In conclusion, self-control and overcoming the desire to be impulsive is important to achieving a high CQ (Character Quotient) and results in leadership driven by good character values. Leadership assessment and leadership training must take into consideration the integration of positive character traits such as self-control in order to help develop a Personal Leadership Effectiveness Culture that reinforces a strong CQ (Character Quotient) within the organizational culture.

As always, I welcome your feedback. You can connect with me via email or telephone or leave a comment right here on the site.

Until next time,


David Town, CHRL, is a facilitator and coach of leadership and management principles that enable individuals and organizations to build greater leadership competency, resulting in higher performance and higher employee engagement. David has a particular focus on effectively managing conversations involving confrontation or conflict. As well, he provides insights and assessment strategies for integrating character competencies into leadership skills resulting in increased trust and reduced risk for leaders. David is President of Your Leadership Matters Inc.

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