Self-discipline is the key to success

January 17, 2014 

"You will need a great deal of self-discipline not to lose your sense of balance, humility and commitment."

~ H. Ross Perot

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with more than 3,000 leaders, and I have observed they just about all share one common key to success. It is not intelligence, education or training but self-discipline that has enabled them to excel in their respective fields.

Lou Holtz said, "Without self-discipline, success is impossible, period," and I have found this to be true in more than just the business world. I have seen it proven in academia year after year.

To get into a doctorate program in any discipline, you must prove your intelligence by taking IQ tests and having a transcript that shows you have done well in all the courses you have taken. However, all of this intellectual capital on its own does not guarantee the student will earn the doctorate degree.

Unlike the coursework, which is a highly structured program of study with exams and deadlines, writing the dissertation (last phase in earning a doctorate) requires the student to be internally driven. There are no tests to take or external goals to meet, and so many smart students just cannot make the grade.

When I was teaching at Georgia State University, one of my colleagues was working toward his Ph.D. in finance from the University of Chicago. He had to be one of the smartest men I have ever known, but he never completed his degree. He just did not

have the self-discipline to write his dissertation.

I have seen this very same thing happen with entrepreneurs and leaders. Time and time again it is proven that it is not the entrepreneur with the highest IQ or degree who is the most successful. Rather, it is the one who has the greatest amount of self-discipline.

One entrepreneur I helped was having a hard time staying focused. She was easily pulled in various directions by her staff and was always all over the place. Because she lacked focus and self-discipline, her business just never seemed to take off.

In contrast, I consult with a leader of a non-profit organization who has more self-discipline than any person I have ever seen. He makes sure his organization stays on task and continually relates all decisions to the organization's mission. This organization is growing rapidly because of the president's self-discipline.

So how do you become more self-disciplined? The first rule is to break every task down into smaller attainable goals. The big picture can often be intimidating, but when you can break it down, you can focus on hitting those smaller targets.

For example, I have been writing this column now for more than 14 years at a rate of 50 columns a year. If you asked me 14 years ago if I thought I could do this, the answer would have been an ear crashing, "NO!" However, I never thought of it as having to write about 700 unique topics. Rather, I approached it one week at a time. Each week, my goal was simply to get this week's column written to the best of my ability. I would tackle next week's column later.

Similarly, I wrote my dissertation two pages a day, taking it one day at a time until it was done. Sure I wanted to get my Ph.D., but what I wanted more was to show myself that I could complete this massive project.

The second rule of self-discipline is to picture yourself at the end of the project. When I was writing my dissertation, I visualized the relief and accomplishment I would feel once it was done. I now realize that what I was doing was creating a cost-benefit analysis by saying the costs of writing the dissertation would be worth the benefits. If that had not been true, I would never have completed my degree.

The third and probably most important rule is to understand that the cost of failing is just too high even to consider. Entrepreneurs would never allow the possibility of failure to enter their thoughts.

Now go out and make sure you are being the self-disciplined leader your business needs to succeed. Remember to break down your goals, picture what it will feel like to accomplish those goals and understand that failure is not an option.

Jerry Osteryoung, a consultant to businesses, is the Jim Moran professor of entrepreneurship (emeritus) and professor of finance (emeritus) at Florida State University. He can be reached by email at jerry.osteryoung@gmail.com.

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