There are lots of leaders today who are extremely talented, good at what they do, and successful in the short term. But some of those same leaders aren’t particularly good people—to themselves, their direct reports and followers, and the people that got them where they are. (Photo Credit:

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These leaders lack the discipline and self-control to do well and be fulfilled. Leaders like this have a lot to learn from people like Ryan Holiday.

Ryan Holiday has been a guest on The Learning Leader Show seven times—for good reason. He’s the best-selling author of 11 books, including his latest, Discipline is Destiny: The Power of Self Control, which was the focus of this discussion. Ryan is an expert in stoicism, self-discipline, and self-control.

Leaders have to take action for the right reasons.

Why do you take the actions that you take? Why do you work towards your chosen goals?

Discipline and self-discipline are very different. Discipline often comes from external sources or pressures. Of course, if your job is on the line, you’ll do the tasks you need to do. If someone’s threatening consequences, ‌you’ll take action. But what happens when none of these pressures are there, and you can hypothetically do whatever you want? If you keep yourself in check and do the right things—voluntarily—that’s self-discipline.

Self-discipline, in my opinion, is the first part of being truly qualified to manage others or hold any position of leadership or ownership. External pressures and metrics are important, but your discipline and passion shouldn’t be limited to those metrics. True self-discipline and leadership come from your internal commitment and loving what you’re doing.

I’ve worked with a few leaders of baseball teams that are typically focused on the number of wins, runs, strikeouts, and so on. Those statistics are important, but that’s not why they should do their job. They should do what they do because they want to mentor players and help them grow—as players, people, and teammates.

When leaders focus on the internal craft, the external results happen organically.

When you say yes to something, you’re saying no to something else.

Right behind my computer, I have two pictures of my family. In between those pictures, I have a sign that simply says, “No.” This is my constant reminder that when I say yes to additional work, additional hours, or new speaking gigs, I’m saying no to other things in my life. Often, those things are me, my family, or my free time. Sacrifices have to be made.

I see a lot of leaders with back-to-back meetings on their calendars, and often I see this become a source of pride for them—like it’s a marker of success. But when I look at a calendar like that, I see what they aren’t doing or what they’ve said no to.

A great day for me is one with a lot of white space, especially in the morning, to do things how I want to do them.

Busy calendars and back-to-back meetings aren’t the signs of a rich life. Instead, it tells me you lack control of your day, and it is entirely owned by other people. 

For leaders like this, I ask them: If you don’t do this, will someone else do it? Could they do it just as well as you? If they could, it’s probably not something you need to say yes to at the expense of something else. Learning Leaders must learn to prioritize what’s most important to them and what helps them truly be successful and happy—not external factors that solely make other people happy.

I’m good at a few different things. Still, I prioritize the thing I’m really good at—writing books about ancient wisdom like stoicism and self-control that makes those topics accessible for modern readers—over those other things.

You have to take care of your body and physical health.

You can’t do everything. That’s not an opinion; that’s a fact. You don’t help anyone, yourself included, by burning yourself out.

Physical routines can help combat burnout. You only have one body, and taking care of it can lead to being a great Learning Leader—because physical health impacts mental health. If you’re able, maintaining a physical routine and sticking to it should be a central part of your leadership practice.

Here are a few of the steps I take to care for my physical health:

  • I protect my mornings and don’t go straight to my work email.
  • I try to be home a lot more often than not to spend time with family and friends.
  • I maintain a regular exercise plan and eating schedule.
  • I take advantage of my willpower at the beginning of the day.
  • I take breaks when I need them and don’t force any output when it’s simply not there.
  • I can recognize when enough is enough.

Taking care of yourself should be priority number one, and sticking to a physical routine is an essential pillar of self-discipline and self-control. If you can take great care of your physical health, it will be easier to strengthen your mental health sensibly. Living a strenuous life—being active, engaged, and in control of your body—is a discipline that naturally carries over to other parts of your life.

A person’s friendship ability is a good indicator of who they are as a leader.

What would you say are the markings of a great friend? To me, I look for:

  • How do they treat other people?
  • What do they owe to other people?
  • Do they treat people kindly? Patiently? Generously?
  • What do they do for their friends? How do they help them?

Great friendship comes down to the classic Golden Rule. Treat other people the way you would want to be treated. Some of the most beautiful success stories and examples of self-discipline are about friendship and what we do for each other. The practice of stoicism is not entirely individual; much of it is about how we interact with others and treat them.

That people depend on you should give you strength. It should remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing.

This ideology carries over to the workplace. For example, when I talk with Learning Leaders, I remind them that the best leaders care for themselves enough that they have a surplus of discipline and strength to help others. If, when things get difficult, people feel they can turn to you for guidance, you know you’re moving in the right direction.

Create a process to help you endure the ups and downs.

Leaders with detailed processes and routines that they stick to—and never abandon, no matter what—can better endure the difficulties and challenges of being a leader and a human being. By living by a set routine, they’re able to not spend willpower or time on external factors and instead focus internally. Without that self-discipline in a routine, getting distracted or tempted to step away from your goals is easy.

When I’ve got too much going on, I find myself faced with the temptation or the opportunity to cheat the discipline. It’s easy to cut from the important things because the important things are hard.

When this happens to the leaders I work with, I talk about the dichotomy of control—the practice of drawing the line between what’s inside and outside of your control. This is the core exercise of stoicism.

Life is much too short to spend energy on the things you can’t control. External factors, like approval or success metrics, don’t define self-discipline. By accepting that we don’t control what happens, we can then focus on controlling how we respond to the ups and downs in our journey. The Learning Leaders that have their dichotomy of control in check are most likely to have the strongest self-discipline and self-control.