Career Guide

Self-discipline comes first in leadership

The age-old debate remains; are leaders born or made? Of course, every parent wishes for his/her child to bear leadership qualities, as they are important traits to possess and are contributors towards career success in many fields.

But perhaps the better question to ask would be, “How do we ensure our children become great leaders anyway?”

Renowned American scholars Robert and Pauline Sears, who specialised in child psychology in the 1970s, believed that personal traits such as the ability to understand or deal with others, the need for achievement, confidence and assertiveness are influenced by childhood experiences, adding that parent support played an important role in leadership development in children.

Leadership skills are a combination of many characteristics that mould an individual, but self-discipline could possibly be the most crucial. In the words of former US President Harry S Truman; “In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves; self-discipline came first”.

Teaching children the concept of self-discipline from an early age lays the foundation for them to master other vital leadership attributes including patience, persistence and focus.

It also equips them with skills to solve problems more effectively, foster and maintain positive relationships as well as address life’s challenges with maturity.

The art of self-discipline

The term “self-discipline” is thrown around a lot and appears in various forms. Simply put, its very definition is the ability to make oneself do things that should be done in spite of inconveniences or hardships.

In other words, it is about having self-control or self-regulation to avoid negative consequences or for the sake of improvement.

Actor Michael J Fox summed it up as “doing something the right way whether anyone’s watching or not”.

Self-discipline is the art of doing something that one may not necessarily want to do. Nevertheless, he knows it needs to be done for a long-term benefit and on top of that, is able to deny certain impulses or diversions that may throw him off-track. Children, by nature, are impulsive and part of the solution is to learn self-discipline.

It is important to note that in order for parents to instil self-discipline in a child, it does not necessarily mean imposing verbal or physical punishment.

To discipline, in essence, means to teach. It is about showing children the right behaviour, setting limits, enforcing habits and helping them tolerate unfavourable outcomes when necessary – all this without breaking their emotional state of mind.

Instead of opting for punishment, which often focuses on what the child has done wrong, parents should practise positive discipline.

The latter works on the principle that children learn better when they understand the connection between their decisions, actions and consequences.

Punishment may correct a child’s behaviour, but more often than not, only because they fear the penalty itself.

Discipline is not meant to humiliate, belittle or cause pain, but to teach appropriate behaviour and to establish the fact that for every action, there is a consequence (

Start them young

Many parents struggle to determine when discipline begins. However, for those who understand positive parenting and are aware of the fact that it is not about punishment but about teaching and guidance, it can start as early as infancy stages.

Of course, a baby “misbehaving” would not be intentional, but “setting limits is a critical part of a responsibility as a parent”, says Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three in Washington.

A study in New Zealand tracked a group of people born in 1972 and 1973 until the age of 32 and evaluated their level of self-control – such as conscientious, self-discipline and perseverance – at various ages (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 2011).

They found that children who struggled with self-control as pre-schoolers were three times more likely to have difficulties as young adults.

On the other hand, children who demonstrated more self-control were more likely to have fewer health and financial problems when they reached their 30s.

A classic study by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, referred to as the Stanford marshmallow experiment in the late 1960s, focused on delayed gratification children as young as four.

Each was given a choice between one marshmallow immediately or waiting 15 minutes to get two.

In follow-up studies, it was discovered that children who were able to wait longer tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by their SAT scores as well as educational attainment and body mass index.

In another recent Swedish study, researchers found that patient children generally have brighter futures (The Local, Oct 2013).

Quite similar to the marshmallow test, grade six children who picked a 1,000 kronor-payout in five years’ time do better later in life than their peers who chose one-10th of that sum straight away.

The study followed the children’s development over four decades and showed a clear correlation between a child’s level of patience and how well they performed academically.

These experiments demonstrate that children who develop self-discipline and patience early on are more likely to be motivated in school and eventually, in their careers.

The ability to wait, as highlighted in numerous studies, teaches self-discipline. They clearly demonstrate the ability to think before they act, weigh out options carefully and understand potential consequences.

In a career setting, children equipped with self-discipline will then tend to fall into leadership roles with more ease.

With work, they would be able to focus on goals, channel effort into their jobs and even more likely to show up for work on time.

In terms of social skills, the ability to think before reacting helps them act less impulsively, more diplomatically and resolve conflict peacefully and effectively.

Developing self-discipline

Children, typically, find it harder to grasp concepts with verbal explanations. Experience is a much better teacher than mere words and this is where parents play an essential role. Nurture and positive modelling are significant influences in shaping a child’s self-discipline.

Most parenting guides also assert that the best way to teach children such vital skills is to exhibit them first themselves.

In many ways, the family setting is not very different from that of a work environment. There is so much potential for children to adopt many qualities at home, which will eventually groom them to be successful leaders.

Starting with self-discipline, parents can purposefully teach children - of any age - its value. Here’s how:

1. Set solid limits

Children are constantly exploring and that is not a bad thing. But children also need boundaries and parents need to send a clear message on this. Often, parents cave in when children throw fits and often lose the battle.

That would be one of the biggest mistakes as children will soon learn to manipulate limits, only to find that the rules of the grown-up world may not be as easy to deflect.

2. Link decisions with implications

Parents should take time and explain to children the consequences of decisions and actions. Also, ask pointed questions to give children the opportunity to analyse the situation and learn to come up with a favourable outcome for everyone.

Reward them when they display positive attitudes and at the same time, point out firmly why bad behaviour is not to be tolerated.

3. Get children engaged

Encourage children to get involved in a variety of activities that will create avenues for them to develop self-discipline.

This includes engaging them in certain family decisions as well as interactions with peers like sports, games and classes.

Good communication is also closely related to self-discipline as it teaches children to be aware of how their decisions may affect others.

4. Be consistent and set a good example

The very core of self-discipline requires reinforcement, as do all learning processes. Give children the opportunity to practise the right behaviour in different situations.

Above all, realise that all children look to their parents to teach them. As the saying goes, “children are great imitators, so give them something great to imitate”.

Any child could be a great leader

Without self-discipline or patience, children risk moving into adulthood without emotional maturity and tend to resort to childish behaviours like sulking, whining and throwing tantrums to influence others.

Such negative, destructive approaches will not likely establish a sense of respect or esteem, let alone help them accomplish goals effectively.

It is imperative that parents are invested in developing self-discipline in their children. Consistency is key in nurturing and cultivating this tremendous asset from young, in addition to guidance, love and encouragement.

Whether or not a child becomes a formal leader in the conventional sense, leadership qualities give every child a head start in life. In order to take charge of their own lives, self-discipline is the right place to start.