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Discipline vs. Spontaneity


I am absolutely convinced that one of the most important keys to success in business (and life) is discipline.

I am absolutely convinced that one of the most important keys to success in business (and life) is spontaneity.

I am absolutely convinced that one of the greatest sources of stress in business (and life) is feeling guilty about not being disciplined or spontaneous enough, depending on your personality.

As a naturally spontaneous, creative (a.k.a. disorganized) individual, I am constantly down on myself for not being more disciplined in just about every aspect of my work life. That includes how I manage my daily schedule, respond to e-mail and manage my employees. My mantra could be, “think how much better I’d be if I could only avoid distractions, adhere to an agenda, resist bright, shiny objects...” This usually shows up at home too, and includes everything from finances and food to parenting and prayer.

On the other hand, when I decide to go on one of my semi-annual discipline jags, I begin to lose my passion for work and I’m reminded that I am fed by having the freedom to be spontaneous and creative.

Some leaders I know are the opposite. They work with extraordinary discipline, rarely, if ever, forgetting about a meeting, letting an important e-mail message sit in their in-box for more than 8 hours without a response, or blowing off a one-on-one meeting to take a call from an old friend. And yet, I’ve come to realize, with relief, I must admit, that these people often feel guilty when they see other successful leaders who live by the seats of their pants and seem to have richer, less predictable and more seemingly exciting work lives.

And so they might try a week of spontaneity, throwing caution to the wind. (“Today I’m going to ignore my e-mail, call an unplanned brainstorming meeting, and maybe even take my staff to the movies!”) Of course, this only creates unbearable stress for them, eventually driving them back to the comfort of a regular schedule and a predictable work life. But, like me, they’re still left to confront the recurring guilt about their inability to be more spontaneous, or in my case, disciplined.

The sixty four thousand dollar question is, are we doomed to spend the rest of our lives lamenting our lack of discipline/spontaneity, and wondering how much more effective we could be if only...?

Maybe not. The first step is not changing the way we work, but rather crushing much of the guilt that we allow ourselves to feel. The truth is, some leaders and managers are just better when they are spontaneous and unpredictable, responding to opportunities as they arise regardless of the schedule. And others flourish within a more structured, disciplined setting. The key is realizing which is true, explaining that to the people you lead, and then accepting most of the unpleasant consequences that come with it, knowing that you can’t have both.

The second step, unfortunately, is about changing the way we work. But just a little.

The fact is, I really should be more disciplined. Why? Because it would make my creative, spontaneous gifts that much more effective and enjoyable. But I need to pick a few, and I’ll repeat that, a few parts of my world where adding more discipline wouldn’t hinder my ability to be who I really am. For instance, I can certainly afford to show up on time for staff meetings and review my schedule more regularly without really limiting my ability to be creative and spontaneous in any meaningful way.

And for my disciplined friends, they do need to embrace spontaneity more, allowing their meetings to veer from the agenda and carving out bigger chunks of time for brainstorming and unstructured strategizing. But there’s no good reason to ditch their diligence about important communication or toss their daily regimen out the window.

Once we take on those few areas, the key is to let the rest go. And when our lack of discipline or spontaneity bites us in the butt from time to time, and it certainly will, we might as well celebrate it because that’s what makes us the leaders that we are.

Hey, maybe someone out there with discipline could teach me how to improve in that area. And in return, maybe I can take your staff to the movies.