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Leading with Character: Self-Control

Last week, for the first time in two holiday cycles, many of us broke free from our routines and took to the roads, rails, sea, and air to gather with family and friends and give thanks. Hopefully, most people tuned out the oppressive negativity that continually streams on their electronic devices and replaced that drivel with the excitement and energy of football games (both the World Cup and the NFL!)

Better yet, families and friends gathered around the dinner table to enjoy a holiday feast. I live in Massachusetts, and we prepare traditional New England dishes to complement the biggest turkey we can find (this year it was over 23 pounds). Our table is laden with dishes like butternut squash, turnip, whole-berry cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and grandma’s yeast rolls (my brother’s specialty). Oh, and we can’t forget the pies; they’re my responsibility and those recipes, like the homemade rolls, also came from my maternal grandmother. This year I made cherry, chocolate, pecan, and pumpkin. I think grandma would be proud to see us continuing the traditions passed down through the generations—and to see everyone eating well!

Indulging Ourselves and Each Other

For our family, and I suspect many others, Thanksgiving is a time of splurging. At the dinner table, most of us let go of every vestige of self-control. And it’s ok to indulge ourselves sometimes. It’s a reward; it’s a celebration; it’s a time to let go. It’s important to create space within ourselves to fill up with physical, emotional, and mental satisfaction. But we can’t live a life of indulgence; we need self-control to keep focused on our mission and goals. That’s where the spiritualelement comes in.

Fruit of the Spirit

Before indulging in Thanksgiving dinner, my family says grace together, thanking God for our blessings. Praying keeps me grounded and centered. It helps me balance between indulgence and self-control. Two years ago, I spent a few stressful weeks leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday fighting through the physical and mental tribulations of Covid. Like many others, I suffered from the insidious effects of Covid-induced brain fog. Not much was known about Covid at the time, and I didn’t know if I’d ever fully recover. I sought solace in the Bible. There’s a passage that has always filled me with inner peace. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul shares nine characteristics known as the Fruit of the Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control. Wouldn’t the world be far more civil, and every Thanksgiving table a better place, if everyone strived to model those traits?

But there’s one of the nine that I’ve found more difficult to model than all the others combined. That is self-control. It’s one thing to eschew self-control on special occasions, such as at the Thanksgiving table, but living, and leading well, requires us to continually exercise self-control. And that is hard. The most grievous mistakes I’ve made and embarrassing moments I’ve experienced during my career are at the times when I’ve failed to maintain self-control.

Risk-Based Decision-Making

Some people are filled with wisdom. Like the famed psychiatrist Viktor Frankel, who gave us these words to ponder: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” I wish I’d studied Frankel earlier in my career. Learning from him could have helped me make better choices and decisions.

I’ll never forget an incident when I was serving as commanding officer of a small, 140-foot icebreaker on the Saint Mary’s river in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. We were moored up at a dock downriver from the locks that ships must pass through on their voyage from Lake Superior down the St. Mary’s River, into Lake Michigan or Lake Huron and beyond. One day when we were scheduled to get underway a huge, 1000-foot ship loaded with iron ore was exiting the locks and heading our way. I was impatient and wanted to get underway ahead of the ore carrier, because it would take hours to make its way down the narrow river. We’d be stuck behind it and unable to get on with our mission; it would be a wasted day. So, I hurried up to expedite our departure.

The crew was competent and capable; we’d done this dozens of times before. We took in the lines, backed away from the pier, and turned to head downriver. Thankfully, everything went smoothly, as expected. But, looking behind us, the massive ore carrier had exited the locks, and was building up a head of steam. Like a Mack truck traveling down a highway, the ore carrier had mass and momentum on its side. I had a moment of realization that my lack of self-control had caused me to put my ship and crew at risk; I hadn’t respected that crucial space between the stimulus to get underway quickly and the response of taking in all lines to do so. If anything had gone wrong with our underway evolution, that 1000-foot ore carrier could have rammed into us, with catastrophic consequences.

Every command or leadership position involves risk—that’s the nature of the game. But, as Viktor Frankel showed us, we have an obligation to understand the space between stimulus and response. We owe it to those we lead and the organizations we serve—the risks we take as leaders must be calculated, not impulsive.

Look in the mirror. Are you working on mastering the art of self-control?

Please join me again next time for more on Leading with Character.

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