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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Inflating Sails after Negative Publicity

Starting an organization is exhilarating. Much positive energy inspires stakeholders to embrace the vision as it moves from conception to reality. Once established, organizations are vulnerable to negative publicity, often which is disseminated widely and broadly through social and other media. No matter how much organizations try to delight their customers, it is impossible to satisfy everyone. I envision entrepreneurs feeling stunned by the impact of unfavorable press, like sailors in the ocean who lost the wind that once sustained them. Typically I focus my interests at the intersection of exercise and leadership. Today, however, I offer my reflections on a specific PR dilemma faced by the leadership of CrossFit®, a provider of exercise services (see video What is CrossFit for more information).

CrossFit® is a form of HIIT that has grown rapidly, particularly in the past five years. In 2007, there were 250 affiliate gyms in the CrossFit® community, whereas today there are more than 10,000, according Brendan Greeley’s article “Is CrossFit Dangerous?,” published in the September 4, 2014 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. This newer form of HIIT is just beginning to be examined empirically, perhaps because its growth is significant enough to begin attracting the interest of scholars. As a CrossFit® practitioner, I am eager for research on this form of HIIT. The more that is known, the more this system will improve. This, of course, assumes that the empirical research is credible.

According to Greeley (2014), a gym owner from Columbus, Ohio, and CrossFit® headquarters are suing The Ohio State University researchers and the publisher of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research for allegedly falsifying overuse-injury data that were disseminated in a current issue of the publication. I do not have firsthand knowledge of the research or the lawsuit, and therefore I have no opinion on either. However, the scenario presents a hypothetical opportunity to consider how organizations can or should respond. Negative press represents a challenge many leaders face at some point in their careers. Once circulated, leaders must consider crafting a response. The adage “doing nothing is doing something” applies. Ignoring the publicity may be misconstrued as implicit agreement.

This example raises the question of how much harm is caused by negative publicity. Understandably, most assume that consumers focus on the negative messages and change their outlook toward the organization and its brand. Research suggests that people give more credence to negative than positive messages when they make judgments, and the negative effects are not erased by denials or direct refutations (Monga & John, 2008). On the other hand, negative publicity may not always cause damage.

Consumers with strong brand attitudes are unlikely to be affected by negative brand publicity. These consumers defend their strong attitudes towards the brand, rallying to the brand’s defense by elaborating pro-brand sentiments or mounting counterarguments against the negative publicity, thereby neutralizing its potential negative impact … Firms can also encourage a focus on pro-brand sentiments by shoring up positive associations to the brand, which diverts attention away from the negative publicity (Monga & John, 2008, p. 320).

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) recommends four steps to respond to negative publicity. I surmise that Steps 1 and 4 offer interesting options for damage control. The first step is to go directly to the source to challenge what was said, and to do so in a manner that replaces the negative communication with a positive message. Related and perhaps more pertinent to this example is the circulation of competing statistics to counter the negative press. For example, Greeley (2014) reported that “The injury rate [among CrossFit® practitioners]-about 3 per thousand hours-is similar to rates in gymnastics and Olympic lifting and lower than rates for rugby and other competitive contact sports..” (para. 20). He added:

Studies on triathlons range from 1.4 to 5.5 per thousand; for running, 2.5 to 12.1 per thousand. Nothing so far shows that CrossFit is any more dangerous than anything else. Strenuous physical activity carries an injury risk. It may simply be that as more people are doing CrossFit, more people are being injured (Greeley, 2014, para. 20).

Another strongpoint to convey is that CrossFit® may be better than other forms of exercise simply because its strong community motivates people to persist. Many other exercise routines engage athletes for a month or two; however, the sense of community that is unique to CrossFit® effectively encourages participants to persevere (Greely, 2014).

The NFIB’s second and third recommendations are to “make amends” (NFIB, 2011, para 4) and acknowledge mistakes. Making amends pertains mostly to a customer posting negative feedback via social media. Examples of efforts to repair relationships include free dinners or discounts on future purchases via coupons or vouchers. Acknowledging mistakes, of course, applies to the culpable party. People prefer the truth hands-down.

Fourth, the NFIB recommends inviting supporters to voice their positive experiences on behalf of the organization. The websites The First Rule of CrossFit and 7 Reasons CrossFitters Can’t Stop Talking About CrossFit reflect the passion among CrossFit® athletes who talk almost incessantly about their experiences. The sense of community, commitment, and motivation to improve is the strongest I have witnessed in any organization. CrossFit® gym members are powerful advocates, and word-of-mouth messages are the most credible among competing information sources. This phenomenon complements Monga and John’s (2008) research mentioned above.

Henthorne and Henthorne (1994) offered a set of preventative steps, which I share in closing. I am not endorsing applying these steps to the CrossFit® scenario per se; rather, the principles do apply broadly:

(1) Watch for situations that could attract negative publicity and prevent them.

(2) Actively seek out customers’ concerns and complaints, and address them before they escalate.

(3) Scan the environment inside and outside the organization to uncover chatter of perceived problems. Equipped with information, even if not from the source but from the “grapevine,” one may develop an informed response.

(4) Evaluate the likely effect of any incidents on the organization.

Like it or not, negative publicity is a threat all organizations should take seriously. One cannot erase a message once the public receives it; however, the four steps suggested by the NFIB plus the perspectives shared by the Henthornes’ (1994) and Monga and John (2008) may assuage the damage, thus helping leaders refocus the organization toward building its future.

References

Henthorne, B.H. & Henthorne, T.L. (1994). The tarnished image: Anticipating and minimizing the impact of negative publicity in health services organizations. The Journal of Consumer Marketing, ISSN 0736-3761, 07/1994, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp. 44 – 54

Monga, A.B. & John, D.R. (2008). When does negative publicity hurt? The moderating influence of analytic versus holistic thinking. Journal of Consumer Psychology, ISSN 1057-7408, 2008, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp. 320 – 332

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