Self-control: A vital behavior for leaders everywhere

Takeaway: To be a more ethical leader, increase your self-control

Self-control is an often-overlooked leadership behavior. Do a quick search, and you’ll find self-control articles connected to athletics but few connected to business and leaders. It is discussed in sports as the traits of self-discipline or self-regulation — traits to help athletes get to peak physical condition and maximize performance.

John Wooden, famous basketball coach of the UCLA Bruins, included it as one of the keystones in his “pyramid of success.” He is quoted to have said that self-control was the “sixth Bruin on the court... as important as any of the visible players.” [1]

Yet self-control matters far beyond the scope of sports. It is a key leadership behavior that needs attention and development. According to a 2017 study involving 218 U.S. Air Force (USAF) officers, self-control was the single most important factor (or moderator) for an officer’s display of character strengths, personal psychological flourishing, leadership effectiveness and job performance, and perception of ethical leadership of their team. [2]

Let’s dig into this study and its implications for leaders further.

The 218 USAF officers completed a self-assessment on their character strengths — measures of their humility/honesty, empathy, moral courage, self-control — and a self-assessment of their psychological flourishing or measure of subjective well-being. Their superiors completed an evaluation of the officer’s job performance, using job criteria for their respective USAF positions. Their subordinates completed an evaluation of the officer’s ethical leadership, “the demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships, and the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication, reinforcement, and decision-making.” [3] An officer’s ethical leadership was measured through statements like “This officer sets an example of how to do things the right way in terms of ethics” (p. 773). [2]

The researchers found when leaders had high self-control, their teams perceived them to be more ethical leaders. Specifically, subordinates perceived their officers to display higher levels of honesty/humility, empathy and moral courage when the officer had high self-control. (See chart below from p. 776 of the paper for more details).


research chart

So, what’s the takeaway for an everyday leader?

Leaders who want to increase the ethical leadership of their teams must increase their personal self-control.

How? Although self-control is correlated with a few measures of personality, it can be developed.

The Self-Control Scale, developed by Tangney, et al., (2004) is used to measure self-control and might be a good inventory to spark self-reflection and set a goal to improve your overall self-control. [4] A handful of items are listed below:

  • I refuse things that are bad for me
  • People would say that I have iron self-discipline
  • I have trouble concentrating
  • I am able to work effectively toward long-term goals

Beyond completing the Self-Control Scale [4] as a self-assessment, leaders can complete a 360 assessment to gain feedback from their superiors and subordinates to understand how their performance matches with organizational goals, priorities and values.

If you’re interested in completing a 360 assessment, connect with our team to take our BUILD Leadership Assessment, which measures character strengths, ethical conduct and 16 other critical leadership behaviors.

...And at a minimum, leaders should take five minutes to engage in quick self-reflection on their overall self-control. Ask yourself: How well do you manage impulsive thoughts or behaviors with others? How well do you model the values and behaviors important to your workplace?




[2] Sosik, J. J., Chun, J. U., Ete, Z., Arenas, F. J., & Scherer, J. A. (2019). Self-control Puts Character into Action: Examining How Leader Character Strengths and Ethical Leadership Relate to Leader Outcomes. Journal of Business Ethics, 160(3), 765–781.

[3] Brown, M. E., Treviño, L. K., & Harrison, D. A. (2005). Ethical leadership: A social learning perspective for construct development and testing. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 97(2), 117–134.

[4] Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F., & Boone, A. L. (2004). High self-control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of Personality, 72(2), 271–324.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.