by John Maxwell
President Harry S. Truman said, “In reading the lives of great men, I have found that the first victory they won was over themselves. . . . Self-discipline with all of them came first.” That is true not just of great achievers, but also of effective leaders. Good leaders practice self-control before they try to engage others. Self-discipline comes before leadership success. It is the price tag of leadership.
When I was in college, I studied Greek and Hebrew. One of the words for self-control in Greek is egkráteia. I think this word gives great insight into what someone needs to lead effectively. The word means to get a grip on oneself. It describes people who are willing to get a grip on their lives and take control of areas that will bring them success or failure. That’s critical because I need to get a grip on me first before I try to get a handle on leading others.
As leaders, our greatest challenge in leadership is leading ourselves first. We can’t expect to take others farther than we have gone ourselves. We must travel within before we can travel without. Many highly gifted leaders have stopped far short of their potential because they were not willing to pay this price. They tried to take the fast track to leadership only to find that shortcuts never pay off in the long run.
SELF-DISCIPLINE MAKES LEADERSHIP’S UPHILL CLIMB POSSIBLE
There is a truth you need to recognize, not just for leader-ship, but for everything in life. For the last year or so I have been teaching it extensively to people wherever I go. Ready? Here it is. Everything worthwhile is uphill.
Think about this. Everything worthwhile is uphill. The word everything is inclusive. It’s all-encompassing. Pair that with worthwhile— the things that are desirable, appropriate, good for you, attractive, beneficial. Anything and everything you desire in life, everything you would like to strive for, is uphill, meaning the pursuit of it is challenging, grueling, exhausting, and strenuous.
The implications are simple: there are no such things as accidental achievements. No person who has climbed the mountain of success ever said, “I have no idea how I got to the top of this mountain. I just woke up one day, and here I was.”
No leader who ever led people to do something significant did it without great effort. Any climb uphill must be deliberate, consistent, and willful. It is very intentional.
The statement “Everything worthwhile is uphill” not only describes life, but explains the reason self-discipline is so essential for a successful life.
1. Self-Discipline Enables You to Go Uphill
If I were to ask you, “Do you want to improve your life?” of course your answer would be yes. The question isn’t if you want it to happen. The question is how do you make it happen? The answer is by living each day with intentionality. That requires becoming self-disciplined.
Self-discipline moves you from good intentions to good actions. It is what separates words and ideas from actual results. One of the greatest gaps in life is between sounding good and doing good. We are ultimately measured by what we do and how our actions shape the world around us. Without results, all the best intentions in the world are just a way of at best entertaining ourselves, at worst deluding ourselves. Self-discipline paves the road to results. Everything worthwhile is uphill.
My friend Jim Whittaker has climbed the great mountains of the world. One day at lunch he shared with me that his greatest accomplishment as a mountain climber was the number of people he had taken to the top with him. And he then gave me some climbing advice that I want to pass on to you. He said, “You never conquer the mountain. You only conquer yourself.” That is the most important leadership journey each of us must make.
2. Self-Discipline Makes the Difference Between Temporary Success and Sustained Success
I want to add something important to my statement that everything worthwhile is uphill. Three words: all the way. Anyone can climb for a short time. Nearly everyone does—at least once. But can you sustain it? Can you climb every day, day after day, year after year? I don’t ask that to discourage you. I ask it because I want you to understand what it will take for you to reach your potential as a person and as a leader. That’s why I say that the price tag of leadership is self-discipline.
Every day we face the decision of whether we are going to pay the price tag of leadership. I like the way Rory Vaden looked at this issue in his book Take the Stairs. He called it the Pain Paradox. Are we going to do what’s easy and feels good in the short term? Or are we going to do what’s difficult and actually is good in the long term?
Vaden said the battle we fight is between our emotions, which typically have more power in the moment, and logic, which takes a longer view of life. That speaks to me because I have a sanguine personality, and it’s very easy for me to live in the moment and to want to have fun. I discovered this early about myself, so I needed a strategy to help me focus on the long term and fight for future success. I wrote about my answer to that in my book Today Matters. I identified twelve major decision areas for my life based on my values, and I made a well-thought-out, logical decision for each of them. When I feel the emotional pull to do what’s not best for me, I choose to practice self-discipline by doing these twelve things that are right for me. If I do them with consistency, then someday success in those areas will show up for me. The emphasis here is on consistency, because consistency compounds.
3. Self-Discipline Makes Habit Your Servant Instead of Your Master
Every person has uphill hopes and aspirations. We all have uphill dreams. But we also have a problem. Every one of us also has downhill habits. And those are often what keep us from making the self-disciplined climb to higher ground. Why? Because habits have power over us. The habits we have make us or break us. We choose which.
Every leader faces two challenges: First, how can I turn my downhill habits into uphill habits? Second, how can I help the people I lead to change their downhill habits into uphill ones? So the question is, how can we turn downhill habits into uphill habits that serve us instead of enslave us?
The first step in changing your habits is to change your thinking. If you can help others change their thinking, then you can help them change their habits too. What we think determines who we are. Who we are determines what we do. Bad thinking results in bad habits. Good thinking results in good habits.
At the core of how we think is our overall attitude toward life. Many people think life should be easy. That thinking causes them to expect everything to come to them without effort. They watch and wait, hoping success will come and find them. It won’t. We can settle and assume that everything will come to us. Or we can take control of our lives and make things happen. If we don’t take control of our lives, someone else will. And they may not want what we want for our lives.
4. Self-Discipline Is Developed—Not Given Lack of discipline is the lid on many people’s potential.
That’s the bad news. How-ever, there’s also good news: self-discipline is not something you have to be born with. It is something you can develop. It’s earned, not given.
The first step to developing self-discipline is awareness. You need to see where you’re falling short. I want to give you three tips to help you develop self-discipline if this has been a difficult area for you.
Self-Disciplined People Avoid Temptation
Recently, during a time I was working hard to lose weight, my friend Traci Morrow, who was coaching me, said, “John, the success of your diet is determined at the grocery store. Don’t bring home food that is not good for you. Leave it on the shelves of the store, not on the shelves in your kitchen.”
People who develop self-discipline and positive habits don’t put themselves in the line of fire. If they want to lose weight, they don’t keep junk food in their desk drawers. If they’re trying to stop spending money, they don’t go hang out at the mall. They intentionally avoid temptation.
Self-Disciplined People Know When to Expend Their Energy
It is impossible to be at 100 percent all day, every day. And it’s not necessary.
Knowing when to be at 100 percent is essential to self-discipline. Why? Because you only have a certain amount of energy. You need to choose when to use it.
Every day I look at my calendar and ask myself, “When do I need to be at my best?” After identifying those times, I then monitor my energy and effort to get the most out of myself during those crucial moments. I apply the energy required for me to practice self-discipline at those times when I need it the most.
Self-Disciplined People Understand and Practice the Principle of Pay Now, Play Later
There are two types of people in the area of discipline. One type puts off what needs to be done and plays now, preferring to avoid doing what he or she must. The other type pays now by doing the necessary, even if it’s unpleasant, and is willing to defer fun and play later. The thing you need to know is that every- body pays. Whatever you put off until later always compounds. If you put off playing, you get to play more later. If you put off paying, you have to pay more later. There is no cheating in life.
Recently I shared with a group of students, “If you only do what you want to do, you will never get to do what you really want to do.” Self-discipline is developed by saying yes when we want to say no and saying no when we want to say yes. There are two types of pain in life: the pain of self-discipline, which is eased by doing the right thing, and the pain of regret, which aches until we die.
5. Self-Discipline Is Most Easily Developed in Areas of Strength and Passion
Where do you find the discipline that leads to success? By doing the right thing every day. That right thing usually involves your strengths and your passion. What you love and what you’re good at usually point you to your right thing.
Self-discipline always needs fuel. The strongest fuel comes from inspiration and motivation, which are usually connected with your strengths.
What you do well usually inspires you and others. And motivation is a by-product of your passion. If you love to do something, you’re almost always motivated to do it.
For years I have spent most of my time developing self-discipline in the areas of my strengths because they complement my purpose. When I’m working within my why, my reason for being on this planet, I am able to remain motivated long after the first rush of enthusiasm and excited energy wears off. I guess you could call it why power. It can carry you forward when willpower is not enough.
If the time, energy, and resources of your life are focused on areas not related to your strengths or passion, I want to encourage you to rethink what you’re doing. Maybe it’s time to
•Quit something you don’t do well to do something you do well.
•Quit something you’re not passionate about to do something that fills you with passion.
•Quit something that doesn’t make a difference to do something that does.
•Quit something that’s not your dream to do something that is. If you change what you do, will it always be pleasant or easy? No. But everyone should say no to the good so they can say yes to the best.
6. Self-Discipline and Respect Are Connected
Respect is the fruit of the disciplined life, both self-respect and the respect of others. When talking about developing relationships with others, I’ve often said that respect is earned on difficult ground. But we also earn self-respect on difficult ground. Self-discipline is its own reward.
The late Louis L’Amour is one of the bestselling authors of all time. More than 900 million copies of his books have been sold worldwide, and even though he died in 1988, every one of his books is still in print. When asked the key to his writing style, he responded, “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” Turning the faucet on is the beginning. Respect is a result of keeping it on. Self-discipline allows you to do that.
7. Self-Discipline Makes Consistency Possible, and Consistency Compounds
Consistency is not a sexy word. Why? Consistency doesn’t prove itself quickly, and it isn’t rewarded immediately. In today’s culture, people are more captivated by charisma, genius, excitement, creativity, and innovation. But I can tell you after fifty years of striving for consistency, the dividends can be extraordinary. Here are just a few of the things consistency can do for you:
Consistency Establishes Your Reputation
Anybody can be good once in a while. Only the self-disciplined are consistently good. And that consistency makes people notice you—and expect you to deliver.
Consistency Is a Prerequisite to Excellence
Anytime you try something for the first time, you won’t be any good at it. That’s just the way it is. So why try anything new? Because we all have to start somewhere. The first step is to master the basics. But then what? You don’t just jump to excellence. The road to get there is consistency. Improvement is possible only through consistent practice.
Consistency Provides Security to Others
As leaders, one of the things we can provide to the people we lead is a sense of stability. Perhaps the highest compliment we can ever receive as leaders are the words, “I can depend on you.” When people see your consistency and know they can rely on you, it gives them a sense of security.
Consistency Reinforces Your Vision and Values
Effective leadership is highly visual. Why? People do what people see. Leaders are models of behavior for those they lead. When team members see their leader doing something, they often follow in their footsteps—for good or ill. The leader cuts corners, they cut corners. The leader performs only when he or she feels like it, they perform only when they feel like it. However, when the leader pays the price, shows up early, keeps promises, and delivers the goods consistently, then most of the people on the team strive to do likewise.
I started speaking publicly in 1968. I made a commitment to train leaders in 1976. I started writing books in 1979. And I began developing and creating resources in 1984. Each time I added another leadership objective, I didn’t neglect the previous one. I kept working at it. I now look back and am surprised by what I’ve accomplished. I’ve spoken more than twelve thousand times. My organizations have trained more than 5 million leaders from every country of the world. I’ve produced more than one hundred books. My success has come because I started young, I’ve worked consistently, and I’m now seventy. That’s the compounding potential of consistency.
Successful people do daily what UN-successful people do only occasion-ally. The bookends of success are beginning well and ending well. What is between those bookends? Consistency. If you want to become the leader you have the potential to be, you need to pay the price of self-discipline.
DEVELOPING THE SELF-DISCIPLINED PERSON WITHIN YOU
Self-discipline is not something you fight for once and say, “Whew, I’m glad that’s over.” It’s something you need to keep working for day after day. But here’s the good news: the more self-discipline battles you’ve won, the less difficult the subsequent battles usually are. One victory builds upon another, and each discipline you do practice helps you with the others you desire to do.
Start Somewhere—Get Wins Under Your Belt
If discipline is something you have neglected or struggled with in the past, you need to set yourself up for success with small victories. Try beginning in these areas:
•Avoid Temptation: In what area of your life can you draw the line of safety far away from the point of temptation? Traci coached me not to buy junk food when I was at the store so I wouldn’t be tempted to eat the wrong foods at home. Where can you draw the line?
•Pay Now, Play Later: Pick small, winnable tasks that you can do before rewarding yourself with fun or relaxation. Anytime you can delay gratification and practice self-discipline, you’ve won. Let yourself feel good about it, and use it to help you want to practice self-discipline.
• Get Back on the Wagon: We all fail, and that can be discouraging. Don’t allow a mistake or a lapse in discipline to make you give up. Acknowledge the failure, learn from it, identify temptations to avoid, and get back on the self-discipline wagon.
Develop Discipline in Your Strengths
While you’re creating or strengthening a strong foundation of discipline in your life, start building upon your strengths. What do you do well? What are your talents? What are you passionate about? How can you leverage these things for your life and your leadership?
Pick one area of your life where win-ning comes more easily, and identify one discipline you could practice to strengthen that area. Plan it, schedule it, and do follow-through consistently.
John C. Maxwell is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, coach, and speaker who has sold more than 26 million books in fifty languages. In 2014 he was identified as the #1 leader in business by the American Management Association® and the most influential leadership expert in the world by Business Insider and Inc. magazine. He is the founder of The John Maxwell Company, The John Maxwell Team, EQUIP, and the John Maxwell Leadership Foundation, organizations that have trained millions of leaders. The recipient of the Mother Teresa Prize for Global Peace and Leadership from the Luminary Leadership Network, Dr. Maxwell speaks each year to Fortune 500 companies, presidents of nations, and many of the world’s top business leaders.