Is Self-Discipline a Muscle?

Inspirational leadership quotes abound. I appreciate one in particular, which concerns self-discipline as a form of conduct from which leaders may benefit:

Self-discipline is like a muscle; the more you exercise it the stronger it gets(TED Talks).

Related to self-discipline are the abilities to delay gratification and exert self-control, particularly when tempted to tack an easier course. A study in The Leadership Quarterly identified 88 behaviors central to leadership, which were derived from interviews of 44 senior-level managers and a review of the relevant literature. The table below summarizes these attributes, which include leader-, management-, problem-solving and communication-related leader characteristics as well as general behaviors that support effective leadership (Anderson, Krajewski, Goffin, & Jackson, 2008, p. 608). Self-discipline is listed in the “General work attributes” column. Click here to see the list of attributes.

Developing self-control early in life provides clear advantages. In the late 1960s, an influential experiment called The Marshmallow Challenge was performed on kindergarteners to test their willpower. They were given a choice to eat one marshmallow immediately or wait 15 minutes and receive two. Although most said they would wait, when left alone in a room with one marshmallow in hand, most succumbed to the temptation to eat it in less than one minute. Those with the self-discipline to wait the 15 minutes for two treats scored higher on SAT exams, and had fewer problems with drug addiction and obesity when they entered high school.

Although the Marshmallow Challenge suggests advantages associated with self-discipline in childhood, I wish to play further with the muscle metaphor in the quote above. I argue it is never too late to develop one’s self-discipline muscle. Research suggests that muscular strength can be enhanced at any point. LaStayo, Ewy, Pierotti, Johns, and Lindstet (2003) subjected 21 frail elderly participants to lower-extremity resistance training. Their strength improved by 60%, their balance by 7%, and their ability to descend stairs by 21%. A meta-analysis 2,020 subjects who participated in studies conducted between 1970 and 2003 found exercise improved subjects’ physical and cognitive functioning, including improvements to those suffering from dementia and other cognitive impairments (Heyn, Abreu, and Ottenbacher, 2004).

I admire those who start a life-changing program later in life. I learned to love exercise when I was young, at a time when running and swimming a mile daily were considered unusual at best and perhaps a little nuts. Some of my friends, on the other hand, started exercise regimens in their 50s and 60s. Many who stay with their routines begin to enjoy working out over time. Others give up. I particularly admire those who dislike exercise but persist anyway.

My book, Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training, explains the perceived connections avid athletes make between exercise and leadership. Not all the participants were athletic before they started HIIT. Regardless, they viewed themselves as self-disciplined, stepping outside their comfort zones routinely because they understand that delayed gratification reaps valued rewards. They achieve their goals and feel better about themselves because they had the discipline to persevere. They perceive a strengthening of their muscles, their minds, and their performance as leaders. I interviewed a director for admissions at a prominent medical school. His comment reflects the continued strengthening of character brought about by building his self-discipline muscle. He practices CrossFit®, a form of HIIT that encourages athletes to measure and track their workouts routinely. Recording one’s progress is a technique that helps maintain this discipline.

I’m much better at keeping score both in workouts and in life in terms of: “Are we making progress? Are things getting better? What am I doing intentionally to get better as an athlete, as a boss, as a dad, etc.

He is a self-disciplined and successful leader. I realize that self-discipline is not a muscle. However, conceptualizing it as such is encouraging. Self-discipline is a desired attribute associated with effective leadership and life-coping strategies. Why not strive to make it stronger?

References

Anderson, D. W., Krajewski, H. T., Goffin, R. D., & Jackson, D. N. (2008). A leadership self-efficacy taxonomy and its relation to effective leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 19(5), 595-608.

Heyn, P., Abreu, B. C., & Ottenbacher, K. J. (2004). The effects of exercise training on elderly persons with cognitive impairment and dementia: a meta-analysis. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 85(10), 1694-1704.

LaStayo, P. C., Ewy, G. A., Pierotti, D. D., Johns, R. K., & Lindstedt, S. (2003). The positive effects of negative work: increased muscle strength and decreased fall risk in a frail elderly population. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 58(5), M419-M424.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.

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