Finding the balance between desire and self-control in leadership
By GURPREET SINGH
Like a city whose walls are broken through, is a man without self-control – King Solomon
The word self-control, upon further inspection, seems more fascinating than it appears at first glance. It suggests that there is a need to restrain oneself and that the self has to some degree be subdued.
But why? Aren’t we all just fine the way we are? Is there really something wrong with us? If so, what? The very suggestion of self-restraint seems oppressive to the modern mind, cutting through the fabric of liberty and freedom like a hot knife would butter.
At the heart of our need for self-control lies the acceptance of our imperfections and self-gratifying motives.
Directing our thoughts on our flaws is uncomfortable and countercultural. It raises a slew of eyebrows, no doubt. Yet, it is often in the fringes of distress that the mind too plumbs the depths of a thought in order to seek a coherent resolution.
An honest self-assessment of ourselves will quickly make it clear that none of us are perfect. While self-control intrinsically acknowledges that there is something implicitly wrong with us, the recognition of our imperfection is the condition on which self-control is birthed.
Self-control dawns the very moment we recognise and acknowledge that our passions and hungers are, more often than not, laced with self-gratifying and indulgent inclinations that can result in self-centred and at times destructive set of behaviours.
It is not surprising therefore, that the most narcissistic of leaders are the ones who fail to practice self-control – simply because they fail to acknowledge their own lack.
Because we are all flawed, self-control is a necessary measure to ensure effective and sustainable leadership. It places on the leader the demand to give themselves up, their natural inclinations and tendencies, for the greater good of those they lead towards a common goal.
That effective leadership recognises and embraces the need for self-control is beyond contention.
To be in control is to be able to motion against the grain. It is the ability to resist the natural flow of events. In other words, control is at its height when parameters surrounding the object of control are tested.
Below are five ways leaders can cultivate self-control:
From our mindset and attitude, to our behaviour and actions, from head to toe we are innately self-gratifying beings. Every faculty of our being is in some way saturated by this thing called self-centeredness, and every decision is made chiefly with the self as the point of reference.
Self-control is a means to mitigate that which is instinctive to us in order to keep us from exercising destructive actions and behaviours.
I recall vividly one of my first ever jobs. I was young, fresh out of secondary school, and very much in the “in” stage of life – insecure and ineffective.
I was working as a debt collector with a team of people numbering in the high teens. One morning, we were all summoned to the conference room before the start of the day.
We chattered inquisitively proposing varying reasons for the assembly as we waited to be addressed by our manager.
The consensus was certain; something was wrong. And we were right! We endured a good ragging, laced with profanity, ridicule, and mockery, based on the dwindling numbers we had achieved.
What is interesting is not so much the mockery, but the ravaging effects it left it its wake. We were all demotivated, and some amongst us left the organisation.
What ought to have been a motivator if addressed appropriately and informed with self-control became a further stumbling block towards achieving our goal.
Life is found in the details, so the saying goes. So conspicuous is this fact that it prompted Steve Jobs’ famous assertion, “Details matter, it’s worth waiting to get right”.
Life is marked by a series of decisions. There are of course the big and weighty life decisions; do I make a career change? how many children should I have? These undoubtedly shape the course of an individual’s life.
But there are also the less lofty or noble questions, simpler in form and lighter in implications, which are often overlooked and given less eminence; should I say a word or keep silent? Should I buy this product or not? Should I have dessert after dinner or refrain?
Interestingly, it is within the choices to these seemingly insignificant questions that character is formed. The sum of the menial choices made have huge overarching implications when combined collectively.
They are not merely choices but a probe into the mind. The collective choices made over time develop a thought pattern. Moreover, a deeper analysis of these patterns reveal the mindset and the motivating factors of the decision maker.
It unearths the internal drivers and reveal the heart’s ultimate pursuit.
Two main ways to discern our motivational drivers include:
Analysing our tendencies
Discernment begins with the ability to be honest with ourselves. Winston Churchill poignantly stressed on the importance of truth by stating “Truth is the most valuable thing in the world so much so that it is often protected by a bodyguard of lies”.
Admittedly, in a world rife with relativism and spin, we often have a hard time telling them apart. The term “it depends” finds its place as the default answer and strickens a leader to indecision.
Moreover, the practice of earnest and honest internal reflection is arduously tedious in our fast paced, instant gratification world. It seems impossible to apply.
Ultimately, what makes the practice of personal honesty and internal reflection so brutally painful is what it ultimately reveals – our true selves. For any leader, the pain element must be endured, first for the esteem and interest of the organisation and team, for it is to the leader’s own maturity and good.
What are your personal tendencies? Do you have a tendency to procrastinate? To speak out in anger? Or to avoid confrontation? Do you have an insatiable desire for the most current and trendy?
An honest assessment of ourselves through internal reflection will grant us greater insight into our tendencies, provide greater clarity of our weaknesses and need, and inform greater urgency to exercise self-control in those areas.
The behavioural element of leadership is merely a symptom to the motivational element of leadership. Separating the two provides a clearer view of the mechanics and implications at work in a mind bent towards a particular posture.
Adopting sound principles
Sound principles are proven principles of decision-making that have been tested and found to be true having withstood the test of time. It is pertinent that a leader establishes and develops a set of anchoring principle that ensures right decisions are made regardless of strain or emotion.
The key to adopting sound principles is to cultivate internal habits that would make them second nature, internalised by ethics and discipline.
Principles are helpful structural safeguards especially in times of testing. They are to be used as go-to references in moments of weakness and uncertainty to ensure consistency, security, and effective leadership.
The practice of analysing ones’ inherent tendencies, when reinforced with the adoption of sound principles will increase the level of discernment in a leader, leading to greater levels of self-control.
There is, prevalent within contemporary culture, the notion that anything that requires the practice of restraint, or touches the outer brims of it, is oppressive and undignified.
Prominent among modern-day thinking is this unceasing bent towards non-obedience, the destruction of all things past; sound principles, proven moral guidelines, traditions of old.
They are often mangled and tossed away in pursuit of modern-day freedom, often with very little thought. I find it most intriguing and ironic that a proclivity towards non-obedience is in itself an obedience.
It is therefore, not so much a question of obedience, but rather a question of what we are obedient to – restraint or non-restraint.
There is an understanding of restraint today that subjects and labels the one practicing restraint as weak and utterly outdated.
In a day and age where the appetite of the senses are heightened and the pursuit of individual desire prioritised and easily gratified, the idea of self-control seems tasteless, even foolish.
We seem to want a lot of things and we want them now, yet are left wanting. It is a tested fact that true freedom is found within the confines of a life informed and governed by self-control. Freedom is found on a narrow path.
A train is at its freest when it sticks to the confinement of the railway track. It can only be at its full capacity when found operating on the railway track, within its intended design. In that sense, it is the most free when it is bound.
Moreover, it is the freest not just when it is bound to the track but also when bound to a destination. A train that has no destination is not free, it is dangerous and unpredictable.
Likewise, the fact that leadership requires a measure of self-control and restraint points to the way leadership and leaders are designed to operate.
Leadership is best exercised when bound to self-control and to a destination or goal that transcends the leader. Just like the analogy of the train, the very design of leadership demands it.
Strength need not necessarily be solely exhibited on the grounds of what an individual can do or accomplish. Strength is equally exhibited by what an individual has the ability to refrain from.
Wrestling with temptation is not a foreign battle unique to a certain group of individuals but to all of humility.
Temptation is an internal appetite or hunger that provokes the flame of negative and destructive desires. Temptation is not merely subject to our internal yearnings but are also susceptible to external factors.
These external factors include, glancing through a store catalogue longingly for goods one cannot afford, or flipping through the pages of a magazine covetously desiring to inhibit a lifestyle one cannot live.
As such, temptation is as much internal as it is external. The internal component of temptation is akin to a kettle of warm water seated within the human heart.
Dissatisfaction, agitated by an external stimulus, brings the kettle to boil. Without a good and proper lid (self-control) it runs the risk of consuming and ravaging an individual aground, often without notice or recourse.
Undoubtedly, the internal component of temptation can be contained by a healthy dose of restraint. Nevertheless, restraint in itself is not sufficient to ward off the flames of unhealthy desire.
A culture of gossip, for example, sows the seed of discontent. It roots every decision that flows from it to its foundation of assumption and hearsay.
A leader who intentionally chooses to immerse themselves in a culture of gossip and doesn’t develop the strength to turn form it is no leader at all.
As strong of a lid of internal restraint a leader might have, the continuous exposure to an unhealthy external factor, will at some point, find its expression in conduct because of our imperfect nature. Turning away from temptation is a practice key to cultivating self-control.
Have you ever visited the Eiffel Tower? Known for its beauty and grandeur, the Eiffel Tower harbours a humbling secret. The strength of the tower is found not only in its artistry and splendour, but in its exceptional design.
Remarkably, each steel beam of the tower is laid in a manner that enables it to support another in order to disperse the weight over its larger base.
Before any beautifying elements were introduced, the design of the tower itself had to be structurally sound.
Likewise, in order to cultivate self-control and exercise effective leadership, it takes a leader some measure of humility to acknowledge the need for support and accountability.
An accountability partner or a close and trusted community will encourage, posit strength, and stimulate a greater sense of endurance and resolve on a leader’s journey towards exhibiting self-control especially when a leader grows weary and weak.
There is great strength in support and accountability, when two or more people muster the courage to be honest about their weaknesses and seek to serve and lift each other up above themselves towards a noble and honourable end.
Self-control is indispensable to leadership. It can be cultivated by a steadfast focus on the cause, fanned into flames by a discerning mind, flexed into shape by a healthy dose of restraint, exercised by a fervent and unrelenting discipline, advanced by a growing ability to turn away from temptations, and cultivated by supportive relationships that hold self-control buoyant in times of adversity.
Ultimately, to express self-control is to express leadership. To express leadership is to express service – to a cause and to others. To express service is to express sacrifice, the shedding of oneself. And to express sacrifice is to express love.
Leadership is the hoist that lifts a leader and those they lead, suspending them together within the framework of an overarching vision.
Self-control is a means to effective leadership. It engenders a more measured response. It matures a leader and hence personalises the leadership process.
It keeps the chief goal of leadership on the forefront of a leader’s mind. Self-control cultivates the right habits of the heart that lead to discernment and sacrifice.
It gifts a leader the impetus to bear all things and to endure all things for the sake of the vision and his or her people.
It finds joy solely on the fulfilment of the cause and in the joy of others.
It is rooted in love and hope and thus generates and induces love and hope. Self-control is an immeasurable asset, a key differentiator, it is a good and awesome thing.
Gurpreet is the Partnership Lead for Leaderonomics Youth. He is tasked with developing relationships with current and potential clients, identifying synergies, and capturing opportunities for mutual benefit. In his leisure time, he enjoys watching a movie, reading, and an intellectually stimulating conversation preferably over a cup of coffee.